Carpal Tunnel vs.Tendonitis: How To Tell the Difference? - Brace Direct

Carpal Tunnel vs.Tendonitis: How To Tell the Difference?

Different hand and wrist issues can hinder your day-to-day activities. Chronic pain in the wrist can be the outcome of several conditions. Your wrist is composed of multiple hard and soft tissues. Abnormality of any of these structures can lead to debilitating pain.

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and tendonitis of the wrist are two conditions that involve the same structures of the hand/ wrist region. Many people are confused about their symptoms and can make an incorrect self-diagnosis as they experience the same symptoms.

This article will serve as a guide about all you need to know about carpal tunnel vs. tendonitis, including some distinctive differences between them.

What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome? 

woman holding her wrist in pain

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a painful disorder that develops due to median nerve compression. The median nerve is a major nerve that provides sensory supply to the wrist and hand. The nerve passes through a narrow tunnel-like area within the wrist. A persistent non-neutral position of the wrist can lead to the development of carpal tunnel. 

The disorder is prevalent in people performing repetitive and forceful hand and wrist movements, like laborers, hand drillers, or workers in manufacturing. However, the global prevalence of the disease is low at 3.8% of the population. 

Older women with a genetic predisposition to the disease are more prone to developing the syndrome. Underlying medical conditions like diabetes also contribute to your propensity toward the disease. CTS risk factors also include gouty arthritis, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Inflammation of the tendon sheath can also trigger carpal tunnel in prone individuals. 

What Is Wrist Tendonitis?

Tendonitis refers to inflammation or irritation of the tendons. A harmonious working of six tendons allows you to move your wrist freely. The de Quervain’s tendons of the thumb are the most common tendons that swell in response to injury or abuse. The tendon is near the thumb. Ulnar tendonitis also causes irritation and pain on the pinky finger side of the hand. 

Injury, strain, or sprain of the hand are major contributors to the condition. Wrist tendonitis is a common complication in new mothers. Thus, de Quervain‚Äôs tendonitis also goes by the name of ‚Äúmommy‚Äôs wrist.‚ÄĚ It occurs in around 1.3% of women. Microtrauma in athletes and repetitive stress to the hand/wrist in plates increases the chances of wrist tendonitis.

How To Tell the Difference Between Carpal Tunnel and Tendonitis

The manifestations of carpal tunnel vs. tendonitis are similar to one another. However, there are some notable differences that you should know. Proper diagnosis can help with timely treatment, so being able to tell the difference between carpal tunnel and tendonitis is vital. 


doctor examining a wrist injury

When comparing carpal tunnel vs. tendonitis, it is important to know that pain in the wrist and hand is common in both conditions. Inflammation of wrist tendons causes pain in the wrist. Other symptoms include swelling, redness, and warmth in the region. A lump may also be present at the injury site. 

In carpal tunnel patients, pain is neuropathic. Symptoms arise due to impingement of the median nerve. Patients experience typical nerve symptoms, such as burning, tingling, and numbness in the thumb and index fingers. Smoking can aggravate symptoms in CTS patients. Itching of the fingers and palm may also be present in some cases of CTS. 

Hand weakness is also unique to carpal tunnel. A large number of patients report hand weakness, which develops gradually. So, if you feel your hand is heavy or non-responsive, there is a chance that you have CTS. 

Location of Pain 

Another difference between carpal tunnel vs. tendonitis is where you can feel the pain. Tendonitis pain is located on the pinky finger side of the wrist, while carpal tunnel pain is felt on the palm side. Wrist tendon pain extends to the pinky finger, whereas CTS pain typically affects the thumb, wrist, and index fingers. 

Impact of Activity

man with wrist splint holding a phone

CTS pain does not seem to change with activity. Many patients report experiencing symptoms after waking up in the morning. On the other hand, tendonitis pain increases with hand and wrist movement. 

Progression of the Disease

CTS develops gradually. Many patients do not feel an ache at the start, and numbness of the hand is usually the initial presentation, which can come after the true onset of the disease. Tendonitis pain develops rapidly. Patients often find it difficult to sleep with tendonitis pain, but carpal tunnel pain usually decreases at night.

Why Is It Important To Tell the Difference Between Carpal Tunnel and Tendonitis? 

It is crucial to differentiate between the pain from carpal tunnel vs. tendonitis. A majority of patients make a self-diagnosis before visiting the doctor, which means that they may be employing the wrong methods of self-treatment. Wrist tendonitis is often not a chronic condition and resolves with appropriate treatment, but that is not the case with CTS. 

Undiagnosed carpal tunnel causes delays in treatment. CTS symptoms usually worsen over time. Because of this, seeking medical attention as soon as possible is crucial. Delaying the treatment for too long can lead to permanent loss of sensation in the fingers and function of the hand. Studies show that hand dysfunction develops gradually in CTS patients.

Improper diagnosis can further worsen symptoms of both carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. The wrong treatment can also waste precious time and money, so being able to tell the difference between carpal tunnel and tendonitis is crucial for a quick and healthy recovery. 

Treatment Strategies 

The treatment options for both conditions are generally the same. The following treatment modalities can help you obtain relief from CTS and tendonitis. 

Pain-Killer Medicines

woman taking over the counter pain medication

Over-the-counter analgesics such as ibuprofen and naproxen respond better to tendonitis than to CTS. NSAIDs can also temporarily improve symptoms of carpal tunnel. 

Steroid Injections 

Corticosteroid injections can be effective for severe cases of carpal tunnel. The injections can help provide instant but transient relief to patients. However, patients should not receive steroid injections repeatedly because they may cause tendon damage. 

Wrist Splints 

Many doctors will recommend wrist braces and splints for CTS and tendonitis patients. Your doctor may advise using a wrist splint for carpal tunnel at nighttime. Athletes, writers, and musicians with tendonitis may need to brace for longer, especially during the day or while they perform the activity that causes pain. 

Physical Therapy 

Physiotherapy and occupational therapy can benefit both people with both conditions. Occupational therapy is provided at work so Carpal tunnel patients can take maximum advantage. 

Stretching and Exercise

Stretching is another characteristic that differs between carpal tunnel vs. tendonitis. Experts do not recommend stretching and exercise during the acute phase of tendonitis. People with de Quervain tendonitis should rest and immobilize the thumb. 

Carpal tunnel patients, however, should add light hand/ wrist stretches to the routine. That can help alleviate the symptoms and prevent flare-ups. 

Cold Application and Elevation 

woman holding ice on a wrist injury

Rest, ice application, compression, and elevation (RICE) of the hand are effective strategies in managing tendonitis pain. If your wrist pain has developed after an injury, you should rest and apply cold to the affected region. This can also help soothe carpal tunnel symptoms but tends to be less effective. 


Surgical intervention is the only option for severe cases of carpal tunnel. The surgeon cuts through the tendon to relieve the median nerve in CTS patients with the help of an endoscope (endoscopic surgery). Open surgery is another surgery type to provide symptomatic relief. 

Carpal Tunnel vs. Tendonitis: Coming to a Conclusion

When it comes to carpal tunnel and tendonitis, identifying the differences between both conditions is vital. CTS and wrist tendonitis have similar manifestations, and people can easily confuse the two, which can lead to delays and mistreatment of the conditions. 

Regardless of the type of pain you experience, it is vital to schedule an appointment with your doctor for an accurate and timely diagnosis and treatment to prevent irreversible damage. In the meantime, resting your hands regularly is important to make sure you can continue your daily activities without pain.