When you’re pregnant, everything is uncomfortable, and it can be hard to do the most basic daily activities—even sleeping and breathing! And, sorry, but one more thing to add to the list of Things That Might Bug You During Pregnancy: carpal tunnel syndrome. If you’ve been waking up with a numb hand at night, you just might have it. Here’s the skinny on why it happens and what you can do about it.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is when the median nerve, which runs from your neck, through your shoulder to your fingers, is compressed within the carpal tunnel—literally a tunnel between the ligaments and bones in the wrist area.
If you’re familiar with carpal tunnel syndrome, you likely think of it being caused by typing for long hours at a computer. During pregnancy, however, CTS can be caused by or, if preexisting, exacerbated by the fluid retention that is common prenatally. “If there’s fluid accumulation and/or tightness in [the], the nerve gets squashed first because it’s the softest structure,” says Angela Growse, a physiotherapist at the Rebirth Wellness Centre in London, Ont., who specializes in moms and moms-to-be.
However, because the median nerve runs all the way from the neck, problems further up can manifest in the wrist or hand, says Growse, also a mother of two. “As the breasts get bigger, you get tighter, your shoulders round more, you’re fatigued, maybe you go into that chin-poked-out position.”
Carpal tunnel syndrome can happen at any point during the 40-ish weeks of pregnancy, but occurrences are significantly higher after 32 weeks, according to a study done in the Netherlands. (Thirty-four percent of the study’s participants reported CTS symptoms during pregnancy.)
“Usually in carpal tunnel, you’ll lose feeling in your thumb, your index and your middle finger, because that’s the primary supply of the median nerve,” says Growse. You might feel numbness or tingling, or have a weakened grip. (Inexplicably dropping your keys more often? Might be CTS.) You might also feel a burning sensation or deep ache in the wrist.
Growse offers several options to manage your symptoms: Minimize salt intake and drink lots of water (read more on exactly how much water you should be drinking during pregnancy) to reduce fluid retention; practise good posture (as best you can); and try cold-water baths for your hand. Growse has personally turned to swimming during her most recent pregnancy: “Because of the hydrostatic pressure everywhere, it really helps with fluid,” she says.
Other tactics: Gentle grip-strengthening exercises, which can help pump the fluid back out of the hands, Growse says. So can gentle retrograde massaging: “Sweeping from the fingers up towards the armpits, where the lymph nodes can process the extra fluid.”
In severe instances, a wrist brace, physiotherapy or acupuncture may be necessary.
For most people, carpal tunnel syndrome should dissipate quickly after the baby arrives. Some women aren’t so lucky though: “A lot of women get [carpal] if they had a lot of fluids given during delivery,” says Growse. “If they had an epidural, if they had IV antibiotics or IV fluids, they’ll come out of the hospital puffier than when they went in.”
Spending hours cradling your baby won’t help either. “You can get [carpal] from just that position, let alone fluid, where your wrist is all curled up with your fingers,” says Growse. “Or the median nerve gets compressed where it comes out of the neck and passes in through the shoulder, particularly if there’s a lot of tightness and pulling forward in the shoulder.” Hello, breastfeeding!
Stretches can absolutely help. Growse recommends three stretches to alleviate the pain of carpal tunnel syndrome:
If you can’t easily shake off numbness, if it’s severely disrupting your sleep, if you’re dropping things, or you can’t open jars—or even if you just have questions—it’s time to get some help, says Growse. “If that nerve is compressed long enough and badly enough, the damage can become permanent.” It’s not common in pregnancy-induced carpal tunnel syndrome, but if any of the more sever symptoms persist, you might need therapy.