What is the difference between carpal tunnel and arthritis?

Joint pain in the hands can affect most of your daily tasks. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and carpal tunnel syndrome are two common causes of pain in the hands, fingers, and wrists, and it can be easy to mistake one for the the other.

Dr. Nortin Hadler, professor of medicine at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and rheumatologist at UNC hospitals, tells Everyday Health, “Rheumatoid arthritis has features that can mimic carpal tunnel syndrome, and carpal tunnel syndrome can be hidden under these features.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by pressure on the median nerve, which runs along the length of your arm passing through a passageway called the carpal tunnel, located in the wrist.

According to WebMD, carpal tunnel syndrome is most often caused by long-term repetitive motion, especially those movements where the hands are lower in space compared to the wrists. It can also occur during pregnancy and with other conditions such as hypothyroidism, diabetes, and obesity.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is characterized by pain, numbness, and tingling in the fingers and hands, especially when holding something, says Crozer Keystone Health System. As the condition progresses, the numbness may become constant, and it can lead to weakness in the hands and fingers

Rheumatoid arthritis is different from carpal tunnel syndrome. RA is caused by an autoimmune response where the immune system begins attacking its own tissues, and this leads to chronic inflammation.

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms will occur in the hands and beyond. These symptoms are different from those of carpal tunnel syndrome and include tender, swollen joints, heat in the joints, joint stiffness in the morning, fever, fatigue, and weight loss. There may also be rheumatoid nodules, little bumps under the skin along the arms.

According to Everyday Health, rheumatoid arthritis can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Hadler explains that the chronic inflammation of RA causes greater constriction in the area of the median nerve and the surrounding tendons.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often a first level of treatment for both arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome.