Carpal Tunnel vs Arthritis

Georgia Hand, Shoulder, and Elbow

Once you start to experience wrist pain, sometimes it can be difficult to identify the source of your pain. Two common conditions that cause wrist pain are carpal tunnel and arthritis. Many have difficulty identifying the differences between carpal tunnel vs arthritis.

Our highly-trained experts at Georgia Hand, Shoulder & Elbow in Marietta and Atlanta, Georgia can assist you with your wrist pain and discomfort. Schedule an appointment with us today!

Below you will find some of the key differentiating factors between carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and arthritis.

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What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when pressure is put on the median nerve. This nerve helps with the function and sensations felt within your thumb, index finger, and middle finger, as well as half of your ring finger. Your carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway or tube located on the palm side of your wrists.

Your carpal tunnel consists of:

  • Carpal bones
  • Median nerve
  • Transverse carpal ligament
  • Tendons

What Causes Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by compression of your median nerve. It can also be caused by overuse and pregnancy. Swelling and inflammation reduce the space in your carpal tunnel even more, resulting in more compression of the nerve.

Injuries can also trigger the onset of CTS. Additionally, arthritis can trigger or intensify the severity of this condition.

Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

The most common symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include the following:

  • Pain
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Discomfort in your wrist joint that gets worse at night and can potentially disrupt your sleep
  • Pain that radiates up to your forearm
  • Electric shock/ burning sensation
  • Possible dexterity issues, including weakness or clumsiness in your hand
  • Reduced sensation/loss of feeling (you may not be able to feel cold or hot temperatures by touch)

Since carpal tunnel has a wide variety of symptoms, it can be challenging to diagnose carpal tunnel without the assistance of a medical expert.

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis is the swelling or inflammation of your joints. While there are several different types of arthritis, the most common types are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

What Causes Arthritis?

Osteoarthritis (also known as wear-and-tear arthritis) occurs when your cartilage (the smooth protective cushioning that keeps your bones from rubbing together) wears down. The friction of your joints rubbing together can be very painful. Osteoarthritis gradually gets worse with time.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis. This autoimmune disease occurs when your immune system attacks the healthy cells within your body, resulting in inflammation. RA generally affects your joints leading to chronic pain, joint damage, and, if left untreated, joint deformity.

Symptoms of Arthritis

If you have arthritis in your wrist, the specific symptoms that you experience may vary depending on the type of arthritis that you are diagnosed with.

 Arthritis symptoms can include:

  • Joint stiffness
  • Weakness
  • Reduced range of motion
  • Swelling
  • Redness


If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you may also experience some additional symptoms, including:

  • Reduced energy/fatigue
  • Low-grade fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rheumatoid nodules (firm lumps that develop under the skin in the affected area)


How Are Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Arthritis Diagnosed?

To receive an accurate carpal tunnel diagnosis, your specialist will perform a physical examination that includes Tinel’s sign, a nerve conduction test, and even imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, MRI, or X-rays.

To diagnose arthritis, your doctor will also perform a physical exam and take X-rays. In addition, to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis, blood testing may also be ordered.

The Difference Between Arthritis and Carpal Tunnel

While both arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome can cause hand and wrist pain, there are certain specific differentiating features of each disease that can help you distinguish between the two.

Carpal tunnel syndrome involves nerve pain, whereas arthritis involves joint pain and the swelling and inflammation of the joint itself.

The locations where the pain is centered are also different. If you have carpal tunnel, your pain may resonate in your thumb, index, and middle fingers. It can sometimes cause pain in your whole hand and wrist up to your arm.

Osteoarthritis pain is typically felt at the ends of finger joints and the base of the thumb. Pain for rheumatoid arthritis is generally felt in your finger joints and the base of your thumb.

Similarities in Treatment

There are a few treatments that can help provide you with pain relief, whether you suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis. These treatments include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Wearing a splint or brace to support your hand and wrist
  • Cortisone injections
  • Physical therapy exercises to help relieve pressure and strengthen your hand and wrist
  • Modifying your activity levels and form of activity


Differences in Treatment

If you experience severe pain from carpal tunnel syndrome, surgery may be required as a last resort. Carpal tunnel release surgery is minimally invasive and performed on an outpatient basis to increase the size of the space within your carpal tunnel and relieve the pressure on your median nerve by cutting the transverse carpal ligament at the base of your palm.

Sometimes arthritis may also become so severe that surgery may be recommended. However, the surgical procedure is very different. Surgical procedures may include reconstructive surgery or a joint replacement. Additionally, rheumatoid arthritis may also be treated with medications to suppress the immune system to prevent further damage.

Get Properly Diagnosed by a Specialist Today!

Arthritis and nerve compression linked with CTS can have similar symptoms. To receive an accurate diagnosis of your specific condition, schedule an appointment at Georgia Hand, Shoulder & Elbow in Marietta and Atlanta, GA today! Our specialists are ready to give you the quality care you deserve. 

Medically reviewed by

Randall Alexander, MD

Hand & Orthopaedic Surgeon

Hand & Orthopaedic Surgeon

Hand & Plastic Surgeon

Hand & Orthopaedic Surgeon

Hand & Orthopaedic Surgeon

Hand & Orthopaedic Surgeon

Hand & Orthopaedic Surgeon

Hand & Orthopaedic Surgeon