As a certified hand therapist, I often treat people suffering from the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). A less commonly known injury, but one that we are seeing more frequently in the clinic, is Radial Tunnel Syndrome (RTS). If you are experiencing an aching or burning sensation in the back of the forearm or over the back of the wrist or hand, you may have symptoms of RTS rather than CTS.
The radial nerve is one of three main peripheral nerves that provide sensation and power to the arm and hand (the other two are the median nerve and the ulnar nerve). The radial nerve leaves the spinal cord at the neck and travels down the arm and into the back side of the forearm. In the forearm it passes through the supinator muscle, the muscle that turns the palm up (such as when using a screwdriver).
The radial nerve is responsible for providing sensation to the back side of the forearm and the back of the hand. It is also responsible for providing power to the muscles that pull the wrist back and straighten the fingers at the large knuckle joint.
Causes of Radial Tunnel Syndrome
As the nerve travels down the arm, repetitive or forceful movements can cause friction at several sites along the nerve pathway as it passes through muscles and ligament bridges. Repetitive or forceful movements can also cause swelling in the tissues that surround the nerve. This compresses the nerve, pinching it and causing sensations of aching, burning, numbness and tingling.
Symptoms of Radial Tunnel Syndrome
Symptoms of RTS include an aching or burning pain over the back side of the forearm and/or into the back of the wrist. There may be tenderness over the back of the elbow and forearm close to the elbow. Pain may become worse with activities that require a lot of wrist movement (such as manipulating the mouse), finger movement (such as clicking the mouse), and palm up movements (such as using a screwdriver). With pressure against the tender area close to the elbow, you may experience a tingling or radiating pain. The arm may feel tired and heavy. An aching pain may radiate down the arm into the hand or up into the shoulder. The back of the hand, the index finger knuckle, and the muscular space between the index finger and the thumb may feel swollen.
Things to Help Prevent and Control Pain from RTS
If you are experiencing symptoms of RTS, here are a few things you might try to help you reverse the symptoms.
- Rest as best as you can from the activities that are causing the problem.
- A vertical mouse that places the forearm in a neutral position (the “handshake” position) may be helpful.
- Do not swivel the mouse with wrist movement.
- Keep the wrist neutral (straight and level, not bent forward or back or angled to either side) when typing and using the mouse.
- Control the mouse by using the larger shoulder and elbow muscles to move it.
- Keep the fingers relaxed on the keyboard and mouse.
- Don’t forcefully straighten or lift the fingers while typing or clicking.
- Use the least amount of pressure necessary to activate the keyboard and control the mouse.
- Use a wrist brace to limit wrist movement and to help keep the muscles of the forearm relaxed.
- Take frequent micro-breaks.
- Use cold packs and hot packs.
- A cold pack placed over the forearm muscles several times a day can help control swelling from overuse.
- Hot packs can help improve flexibility.
- Both can temporarily relieve pain.
- Gently stretch the forearm muscles.
- Avoid the following:
- Heavy lift, grip or activities that twist the forearm.
- Using a screwdriver (Use electric tools whenever possible.)
- Picking up luggage.
- Be careful of using tennis elbow straps that can place additional pressure on the radial nerve.
- Seek medical attention if symptoms do not rapidly improve.
RTS is often confused with tennis elbow. Tennis elbow is an inflammation of the tendons as they attach on to the lateral epicondyle (the bony bump on the outside edge of the elbow). The tenderness associated with RTS is often a few inches farther down the forearm, more on the muscle than on the bone. A tendinitis pain is often sharper with activity and, unless it is a severe case, lessens with rest. Nerve pain, such as with RTS, can be more of an aching, burning pain that may become more severe after activity or at night. When seeking medical attention, be specific with your description of symptoms so that you can help your doctor diagnose the problem accurately.