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Why You Shouldn’t Confuse Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Spinal Cord Compression

If you notice weakness, pain, numbness or tingling in your hands or fingers, or trouble with your dexterity, you might think you have carpal tunnel syndrome. That makes sense since it’s a condition that affects 3% to 6% of adults. But it’s important to have a medical professional evaluate your symptoms, for a couple reasons.  

One, if you have carpal tunnel syndrome and don’t treat it, it could lead to permanent nerve damage, and you could lose function of your hand.  

And two, your symptoms could be caused by another condition. You might have a pinched nerve in your neck, which occurs when a nerve becomes compressed where it exits your spinal column.

Or, you might have a more serious condition called spinal cord compression. Andrew Chung, DO, a spine surgeon with Banner Brain & Spine, explained that it’s easy for people to confuse the conditions since so many of their symptoms overlap. Plus, up to 50% of people who have spinal cord compression may also have carpal tunnel syndrome.

Spinal cord compression in the neck, also called cervical myelopathy, occurs when the spinal cord becomes compressed in your neck. Along with the symptoms that can overlap with carpal tunnel syndrome and/or pinched nerves, with spinal cord compression, you may also notice symptoms elsewhere in your body.

“The spinal cord controls everything in your body from the neck down. Therefore, spinal cord compression can affect balance and even bowel and bladder control. It can also cause weakness, numbness or pain in the legs. These are symptoms that don’t occur with carpal tunnel syndrome or pinched spinal nerves in the neck,” Dr. Chung said.

Spinal cord compression is serious. Once you have symptoms, it’s likely to worsen over time, gradually or rapidly. And in severe cases, you can become paralyzed and lose your ability to control your bowels and bladder.

What causes spinal cord compression?

It’s usually caused by arthritis or degenerative disc disease. You can’t prevent spine arthritis since it typically develops as you get older. But you can reduce your risk by avoiding:

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Manual labor
  • Repetitive jarring actions, such as operating a jackhammer

“What’s important is to catch spinal cord compression early,” Dr. Chung said. You should contact your doctor if symptoms last more than a few days.

How is spinal cord compression diagnosed?

Your doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical exam. “Be honest with your physician. I’ve had people tell me that they didn’t share their symptoms at first because they didn’t think they could be related to the spine,” Dr. Chung said. “The reality is, the spine controls everything, and your clinician can’t help you if they don’t have all the information. What you are feeling is an essential part of the diagnosis.”

If your symptoms point to spinal cord compression, you’ll probably have an MRI, which can show whether the spinal cord is pinched.

How is spinal cord compression treated?

In most cases, you’ll need surgery to relieve pressure and decompress the spine relatively soon. If your symptoms are getting worse quickly, you will need surgery right away. In the procedure, your surgeon will remove arthritis to un-pinch the spinal cord and likely fuse together your vertebrae, so they don’t move. Surgery prevents your symptoms from getting worse and may even improve them.

The procedure is usually performed from the front of the neck, but in some cases, you could need surgery from the back of the neck as well. You’ll probably be in the hospital for one to three days, and recovery typically takes two to six weeks.

The bottom line

Spinal cord compression, pinched nerves and carpal tunnel syndrome can all have similar symptoms, including weakness, pain, numbness or tingling in your fingers, hands or wrists or trouble with your dexterity. However, spinal cord compression is more dangerous as it can lead to loss of bowel and bladder control and even paralysis, so it’s important to seek care and get an accurate diagnosis if you notice symptoms.

To learn more about your back and neck pain, take our free back and neck pain assessment. To connect with a health care provider who can evaluate your condition, reach out to Banner Health.

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