Carpal tunnel vs. tendinitis: How to tell the difference and what to do for treatment

When your hands and wrists begin to hurt, you may look into possible causes. Two of the most common conditions that affect the hands and wrists are tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Both of these conditions can cause wrist and hand pain. While the two conditions discussed here share some similarities, they are caused by different factors. This means they can require different treatment strategies. To get effective care, it is important to identify which condition you have. For an expert opinion, you can request a free screening at a trusted physical therapy clinic.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome can arise over an extended period of time. Left untreated, they can grow to be serious. Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused when the median nerve is compressed at the wrist. The carpal tunnel itself is a passageway from the forearm into the hand. The median nerve runs through this, and helps to control muscles and motor function in the hand. When the nerve is compressed, symptoms begin to appear. These symptoms include:

  • Pain — One of the most common symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome is sensations of pain. This pain ranges in severity and can be felt as dull or sharp. You may also experience a burning or shooting nerve pain, which is more common in carpal tunnel syndrome vs. tendinitis. The symptomatic pain of tendinitis is more commonly felt in the muscles and tendons.
  • Weakness — When someone suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome, they may not be able to complete tasks with their hands as easily as before. In addition to losing strength, they may also find that range of motion in their hands and wrists is restricted.
  • Numbness — The effects of carpal tunnel syndrome on your nerves can lead to numbness in your hands and fingers. Though numb to tactile sensation, you may still feel a burning sensation in the affected areas.


Like carpal tunnel syndrome, the symptoms of tendinitis may gradually intensify over time. However, the causes differ significantly. Tendinitis occurs when the tendons in a given part of the body become inflamed. The region of the hand and wrist is a common location for tendinitis. Since the tendons are directly connected to muscles and bones, this condition can have far-reaching effects on the body, such as:

  • Chronic pain — Like carpal tunnel syndrome, someone suffering from tendinitis will likely experience chronic pain. With tendinitis, the pain can spread from the wrist into the fingertips. This pain can also increase with movement, as inflamed tendons rub against other parts of the body.
  • Tendon stiffness — Both conditions can limit range of motion. However, the specific symptom of tendon stiffness can be a major indication that you’re suffering from tendinitis vs. carpal tunnel syndrome. Stiffness can occur when the tendons tighten and become inflexible. This can make it difficult to move joints in the wrist and hand.
  • Tissue swelling — Because tendinitis is an inflammatory condition, it can lead to swelling in adjacent areas. With tendinitis in the wrist, the area around the wrist is most vulnerable to this swelling. The affected area may appear red on the surface, and can be tender or painful to touch.

How to tell if you have carpal tunnel syndrome vs. tendinitis

While these conditions can have similar symptoms, there are certain distinguishing factors to look out for. You can compare the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome vs. tendinitis to see which more accurately fits your own experience. Here are some of the core differences:

  • Pain location — Chronic wrist pain is often described as coming from the palm side of the wrist by patients suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, versus the pain usually being located on the other side in cases of tendinitis.
  • Sensation type — The aches and pains associated with each condition can be similar, but each has unique aspects. Tendinitis mainly causes pain in the muscles and tendons. It may also create an uncomfortable sensation of stiffness. The sensations of carpal tunnel syndrome, however, are more aligned with nerve pain. A carpal tunnel syndrome patient can experience sensations of shooting numbness, pinching and burning.
  • External appearance — Tendinitis can sometimes be observed on the surface due to swelling and inflammation. Carpal tunnel syndrome tends to be less visible.

Treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome vs. tendinitis

It can be important to determine if you suffer from tendinitis vs. carpal tunnel syndrome to ensure that you receive the correct treatment regimen. Certain treatments are more viable or effective for one condition over the other. The three listed below, however, can help with both carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis:

  • Frequent rest — Both of these conditions can be made worse by overexertion. Resting can help alleviate symptoms temporarily and prevent them from becoming worse.
  • Ergonomic assessments — If your condition is caused in part by a workplace environment, ergonomic assessments can help address workplace habits or patterns that lead to health conditions. Even using an ergonomic keyboard vs. a traditional one can help prevent tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. 
  • Physical therapy — One of the most effective treatments for both conditions is physical therapy. Physical therapists can offer a range of treatment options designed for relief and recovery. A physical therapy specialist can also help determine if you suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome vs. tendinitis. 

Back in Motion Physical Therapy can address your hand and wrist conditions

Once you know the symptoms of tendinitis vs. carpal tunnel syndrome, you may have an idea of which condition you suffer from. At Back in Motion Physical Therapy, our expert physical therapy specialists can help build a treatment plan designed to effectively treat your symptoms. With physical therapy, you can get started on the path to recovery.

Contact us today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment. 

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