Connection Between Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Migraines

Theory of Nerve Compression as Migraine Culprit

Do you suffer from tingling in your hand and wrist in addition to migranes?. Colin Hawkins/Getty Images

Do you suffer from a tingling and numbness sensation in your wrist? Do you flick your hand at night or in the morning to get rid of the tingly feeling? You could have carpal tunnel syndrome - and it may be linked to your migraines, according to one novel study. 

First...What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by compression of the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the palm of the hand. This compression leads to pain, tingling, and numbness along the palm of the hand and the fingers, mainly the thumb, index, and middle fingers. Sometimes the pain can radiate up the arm and into the shoulder. 

A Unique Theory About What Causes Migraines

The precise etiology of migraines is still highly debated by scientists and headache specialists. One novel and controversial hypothesis is that migraines are triggered by nerve compression in the head and neck. Supporters of this hypothesis site studies that have shown migraine relief from nerve decompression through surgical means or through the effects of botulinum toxin on the nerve or surrounding muscles.

One 2015 study in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Global Open sought to test whether a connection exists between carpal tunnel syndrome, a type of compressive neuropathy, and migraine.

In this study, data from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) was used to estimate the prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome and migraine. The NHIS is a survey administered throughout the year that is an "annual, in-person health survey of civilian, non-institutionalized population of the United States."

A participant in the study was deemed to have carpal tunnel syndrome if they answered "yes" to these two questions:

  • "Have you ever been told by a doctor or other health professional that you have a condition affecting the wrist and hand called carpal tunnel syndrome?"
  • "During the past 12 months have you had carpal tunnel syndrome?"

A participant  was deemed to have a migraine if they answered "yes" to this question:

  • "During the past 3 months, did you have a severe headache or a migraine?"

Of the 25,880 survey respondents in the study, 3.7 percent had carpal tunnel syndrome and 16.3 percent had migraines.

Results also suggested that carpal tunnel syndrome and migraine shared some risk factors. For instance, both migraines and carpal tunnel syndrome were associated with female sex, obesity, and diabetes.

One major difference found between these two conditions is that carpal tunnel syndrome was associated with older age - most common in 50 to 64-year-olds - while a migraine was associated with younger age -more common in 18 to 34-year-olds.

After adjusting for several variables, migraine was found in 34 percent of those with carpal tunnel syndrome and 16 percent of those without carpal tunnel syndrome. On the flip side, carpal tunnel syndrome was present in 8 percent of those with a migraine and 3 percent of those without migraines.

After adjusting for factors, the authors found that the odds of having migraine were 2.60 times higher for those with carpal tunnel syndrome. The odds of having carpal tunnel syndrome were 2.67 times higher for those with a migraine.

This all being said, there are some major study limitations. One major limitation is that this study was based on a survey. The diagnosis of a migraine and carpal tunnel syndrome were not confirmed by a physician.

In addition, the survey question for a migraine states, "...did you have a severe headache or a migraine?" A severe headache could include a number of other headache disorders besides a migraine, like cluster headaches.

Finally, there was a time limit placed on the questions. For instance, "during the past 12 months have you had carpal tunnel syndrome?" This may have missed individuals who had carpal tunnel syndrome a couple years ago or more.

The Bottom Line

Remember a connection between two medical conditions does not mean that one causes the other. Rather a connection means that some sort of association potentially exists - the cause or mediator of this connection is still unknown (and there could be multiple mediators). 

An interesting point from the authors in their conclusion:

  • "Because a migraine headache is more common in younger patients, and carpal tunnel syndrome is more prevalent in older patients, migraine headache could conceivably sensitize the central nervous system to develop pain from later nerve compression in the carpal tunnel."

So are migraines an early predictor of carpal tunnel syndrome?  We don't know. More studies are needed to elucidate this relationship, especially long-term studies that correct the limitations mentioned above.

Regardless, this is an interesting relationship and either moves us closer (or farther!) from understanding migraines - the exact cause (or causes) still a conundrum.

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