Physical therapy has been found to be as effective as surgery in treating carpal tunnel syndrome in a new study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy.
The research found that one year following treatment, those with carpal tunnel syndrome who received physical therapy treatments showed results similar to their counterparts who underwent surgery. Physical therapy patients were also found to improve faster when measured at the one month mark than those who were treated with surgery.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is commonly caused by repetitive movements performed over an extended period, like typing, and is one of the most common causes of workplace injuries. The syndrome can cause pain in the wrists and hands as well as weakness and numbness in the affected area, and it can affect a patient’s hand and grip function. While surgery is performed only in severe cases, it can leave a patient out of the workforce for up to eight weeks—a setback that occurs in over one-third of cases.
To test if physical therapy—specifically the manual therapy of the neck and median nerve as well as stretching—could function as an effective alternative to surgery, Dr. Cesar Fernandez de las Penas and his team studied cases of 100 women who had been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. These women were randomly split into two groups: half were treated with physical therapy and the other half with surgery. Those receiving physical therapy were treated with manual therapy of the neck and median nerve for 30 minutes weekly and performed stretching exercises at home.
After one month, it was found that those in the physical therapy group had better hand function and improved grip strength in comparison to those who underwent surgery. After three, six, and twelve months, the improvements were the same in both groups, with similar increases in function and grip strength as well as decreases in pain.
These results allowed researchers to conclude that for this sample, physical therapy was just as effective a treatment as surgery and may even be the better option as improvements were seen faster and the treatment required less recovery time. Dr. de las Penas commented on these findings, stating: “Conservative treatment may be an intervention option for patients with carpal tunnel syndrome as a first line of management prior to or instead of surgery.” While these results are promising, researchers have cautioned that their sample was made up of only women from one hospital, meaning more research is required before these conclusions can be more broadly applied.