There is no consensus reference standard for the diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome. A combination of described symptoms, clinical findings, and electrophysiological testing is used by a majority of hand surgeons. Numbness in the distribution of the median nerve, nocturnal symptoms, thenar muscle weakness/atrophy, positive Tinel's sign at the carpal tunnel, and abnormal sensory testing such as two-point discrimination have been standardized as clinical diagnostic criteria by consensus panels of experts. A predominance of pain rather than numbness is unlikely to be caused by carpal tunnel syndrome no matter what the result of electrophysiological testing.
Electrodiagnostic testing (electromyography and nerve conduction velocity) can objectively verify the median nerve dysfunction. If these tests are normal, carpal tunnel syndrome is either absent or very, very mild.
Clinical assessment by history taking and physical examination can support a diagnosis of CTS.
- Phalen's maneuver is performed by flexing the wrist gently as far as possible, then holding this position and awaiting symptoms. A positive test is one that results in numbness in the median nerve distribution when holding the wrist in acute flexion position within 60 seconds. The quicker the numbness starts, the more advanced the condition. Phalen's sign is defined as pain and/or paresthesias in the median-innervated fingers with one minute of wrist flexion. Only this test has been shown to correlate with CTS severity when studied prospectively.
- Tinel's sign, a classic — though less sensitive - test is a way to detect irritated nerves. Tinel's is performed by lightly tapping the skin over the flexor retinaculum to elicit a sensation of tingling or "pins and needles" in the nerve distribution. Tinel's sign (pain and/or paresthesias of the median-innervated fingers with percussion over the median nerve) is less sensitive, but slightly more specific than Phalen’s sign.
- Durkan test, carpal compression test, or applying firm pressure to the palm over the nerve for up to 30 seconds to elicit symptoms has also been proposed.
As a note, a patient with true carpal tunnel syndrome (entrapment of the median nerve within the carpal tunnel) will not have any sensory loss over the thenar eminence (bulge of muscles in the palm of hand and at the base of the thumb). This is because the palmar branch of the median nerve, which innervates that area of the palm, branches off of the median nerve and passes over the carpal tunnel. This feature of the median nerve can help separate carpal tunnel syndrome from thoracic outlet syndrome, or pronator teres syndrome.
Other conditions may also be misdiagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome. Thus, if history and physical examination suggest CTS, patients will sometimes be tested electrodiagnostically with nerve conduction studies and electromyography. The goal of electrodiagnostic testing is to compare the speed of conduction in the median nerve with conduction in other nerves supplying the hand. When the median nerve is compressed, as in CTS, it will conduct more slowly than normal and more slowly than other nerves. There are many electrodiagnostic tests used to make a diagnosis of CTS, but the most sensitive, specific, and reliable test is the Combined Sensory Index (also known as Robinson index). Electrodiagnosis rests upon demonstrating impaired median nerve conduction across the carpal tunnel in context of normal conduction elsewhere. Compression results in damage to the myelin sheath and manifests as delayed latencies and slowed conduction velocities However, normal electrodiagnostic studies do not preclude the presence of carpal tunnel syndrome, as a threshold of nerve injury must be reached before study results become abnormal and cut-off values for abnormality are variable. Carpal tunnel syndrome with normal electrodiagnostic tests is very, very mild at worst.
The role of MRI or ultrasound imaging in the diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome is unclear.
Read more about this topic: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
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