Research is opening up new avenues of noninvasive treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Two areas of development include ultrasound therapy and low-level laser therapy, and researchers are interested in these two treatments primarily because of their ability to increase blood circulation to affected areas and reduce inflammation. Let’s take a look at each one:
Though most people think of ultrasound’s usefulness as its ability to generate images, its therapeutic usefulness began to be explored in the 1930s, and by the 1950s, therapeutic ultrasound had become a routine part of physiotherapy. Gel is applied to the affected area, and a handheld transducer is rubbed in a circular fashion across it, with the overall objective to increase blood flow to that area and promote healing. The risk of injury is low, both to the patient and to the operator, though if the device is held in one place for too long, it could result in burns. Fortunately, using low frequencies and having special training for ultrasound technicians minimizes this risk of patient injury.
In a 1998 study, ultrasound was successfully used to treat mild to moderate cases of CTS. This study included 45 participants who had CTS symptoms in both hands, and over a period of 20 treatments, ultrasound therapy was applied to one wrist consistently, but a fake (or sham) treatment was applied to the other wrist. Out of the original 45 participants, 34 completed the treatment schedule and showed improvement in symptoms. Hand grip was strengthened, and pain/numbness was reduced in the ultrasound-treated wrists.
The word “laser” tends to bring light-saber images to most people’s minds, but since the 1960s, low-level laser therapy has been found to decrease pain and inflammation and improve wound healing. Sometimes called “cold laser therapy,” this type of laser therapy involves exposing tissues to red or near infrared light at very low levels, those that would not “heat” tissue.
However, using low-level lasers to treat mild to moderate CTS symptoms has been a topic of debate due to the inconsistent results that have been generated from various studies. A 2016 study shows that part of the problem contributing to the inconsistent results about the effective use of laser for CTS patients is that the power level used or the length of time for the treatment varied among the studies performed. Another 2016 study (called a “meta-analysis”) looked at a number of previous studies and found that low-level laser therapy did improve hand grip and nerve action for mild to moderate cases of CTS.
In an interesting comparison study performed in 2004, 40 patients with both wrists affected by CTS underwent ultrasound treatment for one wrist and low-level laser therapy for the other wrist. Though both treatments resulted in improvement in hand grip and pinch strength, the ultrasound treatment offered more pain reduction.
If other noninvasive treatments for CTS haven’t helped you, there are more treatment options available. Be sure to check out Doctorpedia’s videos where an expert physician offers valuable information you can use to inform your conversation with your own doctor!
- Bakhtiary, A.H., & Radhidy-Pour, A. (2004). Ultrasound and laser therapy in the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome. Australian Journal of Physiotherapy 50(3), 147-151. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0004951414601525
- Chen, Y., Zhao, C., Ye, G., Liu, C., & Xu, W. (2016). Low-power laser therapy for carpal tunnel syndrome: effective optical power. Neural Regeneration Research 11, 1180-4. Retrieved from http://www.nrronline.org/article.asp?issn=1673-5374;year=2016;volume=11;issue=7;spage=1180;epage=1184;aulast=Chen
- Chung, H., Dai, T., Sharma, S.K., Huang, Y., Carroll, J.D., & Hamblin, M.R. (2011). The nuts and bolts of low-level laser (light) therapy. Annals of Biomedical Engineering 40(2), 516-33. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3288797/
- Ebenbichler, G.R., Resch, K.L., Nicolakis, P., Wiesinger, G.F., Uhl, F., Ghanem, A., & Fialka, V. (1998). Ultrasound treatment for treating the carpal tunnel syndrome: Randomised “sham” controlled trial. BMJ 316(7133), 731-5. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC28476/
- Li, Z., Wang, Y., Zhang, H., Ma, X., Tian, P., & Huang Y. (2016). Effectiveness of low-level laser on carpal tunnel syndrome: A meta-analysis of previously reported randomized trials. Medicine (Baltimore) 95(31), e4424. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4979817/
- Miller, D., Smith, N., Bailey, M., Czarnota, G., Hynynen, K., Makin, I., & American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine Bioeffects Committee. (2012). Overview of Therapeutic Ultrasound Applications and Safety Considerations. Journal of Ultrasound Medicine 31(4), 623-34. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3810427/
Nan Kuhlman is an author, freelance writer, and part-time university professor based in Los Angeles, CA. She currently works full-time as a technical writer in Los Angeles and part-time as an online adjunct writing instructor. She has written for scholarly publications like the University of California, Davis Writing on the Edge and Chapman University’s Anastamos Interdisciplinary Journal, among others.