Carpal Tunnel Versus Tendonitis: What's The Difference?

Aches and pains that radiate in the wrists, hands, and fingers may sometimes point to a potential health condition, with carpal tunnel and tendonitis being among them (via Midwest Hand Surgery). Because each can present with similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell them apart. Yet experts explain that carpal tunnel and tendonitis are actually distinctly different from one another.

According to the American College of Rheumatology, as many as 10 million people in the U.S. are estimated to have carpal tunnel syndrome. Caused by compression of the median nerve, those with the condition often experience pain on the underside of the wrist, tingling sensations, or numbness in the thumb, index, and middle finger, according to experts at Midwest Hand Surgery. However, health experts note that in cases of carpal tunnel, these sensations are not experienced in the pinky finger, as the median nerve — which runs through the wrist — does not connect to our little finger. Additionally, the Kleinert Kutz Hand Care Center explains that carpal tunnel pain often comes on slowly over time and may eventually lead to feelings of burning, swelling, or itching.

Can your job put you at risk for carpal tunnel or tendonitis?

Tendonitis is characterized by inflammation of the wrist tendons due to repetitive stress, according to experts at the Philadelphia Hand to Shoulder Center. This can lead to pain, swelling, and numbness in the pinky finger. "There are about 10 or so tendons that could possibly be affected," says orthopedic surgeon Dr. ​​Elizabeth King via Henry Ford Health. Unlike carpal tunnel, however, experts at Kleinert Kutz Hand Care Center explain that the pain of tendonitis is only experienced over the inflamed tendon, rather than all throughout the hands and wrists. Additionally, tendonitis does not come with itching or the gradual onset of pain like carpal tunnel does.

So can typing away at a desk job for hours each day put us at an increased risk for either of these conditions? "No studies have been able to demonstrate that carpal tunnel syndrome and wrist tendonitis are caused by typing," Dr. King tells Henry Ford Health. "Recent studies actually show jobs that require the repetitive use of power tools are more likely to cause these issues." Dr. King goes on to explain that vibrations given off by power tools or repeated wrist usage while working on an assembly line are more likely to affect the nerves and tendons associated with carpal tunnel and tendonitis. But that's the key difference, experts stress. Carpal tunnel is a condition affecting the nerves, while tendonitis pertains to the tendons.