August 10, 2021

Difference Between Carpal Tunnel vs. Arthritis

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) causes discomfort and loss of function in the fingers, hand, and wrist. Arthritis can affect those areas, too. 

And the two conditions can affect one another. But carpal tunnel and arthritis are not the same thing. Is it carpal tunnel or arthritis? Let’s look at the differences between the two conditions.

What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that develops when a nerve called the median nerve, which passes through a passageway in the wrist (named the carpal tunnel, after the bones that surround it), gets pinched or damaged by swelling or inflammation. 

This generally occurs over time and is frequently associated with repetitive movements of the fingers and hand. However, CTS can be caused by other things like wrist injuries, hormonal changes during pregnancy, and medications taken for other conditions.  

Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause a variety of symptoms in the fingers, hand, and wrist. It can even affect the arm. Symptoms include: 

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Burning sensation
  • Pain
  • Prickly sensation like an electric shock 
  • Weakness and/or clumsiness in the hand, particularly the thumb
  • Loss of sensation
  • Decreased ability to control fine movements

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis is a condition that affects joints in the body, including fingers, hands, wrists, elbows, and knees. It can affect any number of joints. There are two main types of arthritis: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). 

Osteoarthritis is caused by normal wear and tear on the joints that destroys the cartilage at the end of a bone. Cartilage serves as a “shock absorber” between bones. When there isn’t enough of it present, bones rub together causing arthritis symptoms. RA is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks your joints. 

The symptoms of the two types of arthritis are similar, and include:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Warmth
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Lumps on the skin that covers the joints

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What’s the Difference Between Carpal Tunnel and Arthritis?

There are several differences between carpal tunnel and arthritis. The table below provides details. 

WhereOne or both wrists/handsTypically larger joints including the wristsTypically smaller joints including wrists
CauseInflammation, repetitive movementsInflammation, repetitive movements, wear and tearJoint damage and inflammation
Specific pain pointsThumb, middle/index fingers, hands, wrist; may extend to arm, shoulder, neckBase of thumb, joints closest to fingertipsBase of thumb, finger joints
WhenTypically worse at night and in morning; may be worse any time of day with certain activities (typing, writing, housework)Stiffness after resting/sleeping; pain with movementStiffness after resting/sleeping; pain with movement
Other SymptomsTingling in fingers and thumb, weakness, numbnessSwelling, tenderness, weakness, stiffnessSwelling, tenderness, weakness, stiffness
DiagnosedPhysical exam, Tinel’s sign, nerve conduction test, Phalen test, ultrasoundPhysical exam, X-rayPhysical exam, X-ray
TreatmentSplint/brace, pain relievers, anti-inflammatories, heat/cold therapy, physical therapy, corticosteroid injections, surgerySplint/brace, pain relievers, anti-inflammatories, heat/cold therapy, physical therapy, corticosteroid injections, surgerySplint/brace, pain relievers, biologics, DMARDs, anti-inflammatories, heat/cold therapy, physical therapy, corticosteroid injections, surgery

Does Arthritis Cause Carpal Tunnel?

Patients will sometimes ask, “Can you have arthritis and carpal tunnel?” Yes, you can. It’s common to have carpal tunnel syndrome when you have rheumatoid arthritis, especially if the arthritis is affecting your wrists. The carpal tunnel is narrow, so anything that causes inflammation in the area can produce or worsen carpal tunnel syndrome. 

Looking at the relationship the other way, does carpal tunnel cause arthritis? No, it does not.

Learn More About Carpal Tunnel from Baptist Health

If you’re experiencing discomfort in your fingers, hands, or wrists, Baptist Health providers can help you understand whether it’s caused by CTS, arthritis, or some other condition and prescribe treatment to help you get relief.

Next Steps and Useful Resources

Find a Provider Near You
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Diagnosis & Treatment Options
Arthritis and Pain Management: How to Get Relief
[PODCAST] Don’t Shrug Off Shoulder and Elbow Pain

Learn More.