Challenging the Traditional Diagnosis of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

By James Waslaski, Author & International Lecturer
September 14, 2011

Challenging the Traditional Diagnosis of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

By James Waslaski, Author & International Lecturer
September 14, 2011

In the light of clinical studies, and research available today, this article will take a close look at common forearm, wrist and hand problems that often seem to be diagnosed and treated incorrectly. This article is based on a true case study of a client from one of my seminars in Boston. This particular client had recently undergone surgery at both his wrist and elbow. Both surgical procedures were attempts to release the pressure on his median nerve, to treat carpal tunnel syndrome. Unfortunately, the actual nerve compression problem was actually in his neck and shoulder before the nerves ever branched off to become the median nerve at the elbow and wrist. Once we treated the tight muscle groups such as his SCMs, anterior and posterior scalenes, and his pectoralis minor, the numbness, tingling and parasthesia that surgery did not correct in his arm and hand went away.

The term multiple crush phenomenon refers to a condition when there is more than one compression on a nerve trunk. Sections of the nerve distal to the first site of compression become nutritionally deficient because of axoplasmic flow blockage. Consequently, these distal areas are more susceptible to irritation from even a minor degree of compression (i.e. becoming the second or third site of the crush).

If you look at a classic postural distortion pattern of someone talking on the phone, it is clear to see that poor work ergonomics can shorten muscle groups in the neck, shoulder, elbow, forearm, wrist and hand. (Figure 1 ) When muscles like the SCMs, anterior and posterior scalenes, and pectoralis minor shorten, the brachial plexus of nerves get compressed under the clavicle. (Figure 2)

This is often compounded with cervical nerve compression problems. So the nerves are compressed twice already. Then at the elbow, the median nerve runs through the bicipital apeneurosis, and again through the pronator teres. (Figure 3) If there is tension or damage to the bicipital apeneurosis or teres minor, the nerves are now compressed four times before they ever reach the carpal tunnel.

Therefore, when a client complains of clinical symptoms such as parasthesia, numbness, and pins and needle sensations in their hands, the manual therapist should look at all areas of nerve compression between the brain and the fingertips. In my opinion, the assessment should start in neck and shoulder, progress to the elbow, and then end at the wrist. This approach to treatment would address what Dr. Erik Dalton refers to as descending syndromes.

Based on the photo of the woman on the telephone, let's look at a simple road map. This assumes that posturology has addressed a true leg length discrepancy, and myoskeletal alignment techniques have facilitated alignment of the bones in the cervical spine.

Step 1. Release the tight SCMs, and anterior and posterior scalenes.

This should start with myofascial release, followed by treating active and latent muscle belly myofascial trigger points, and stretching those muscles that often pull the first rib up onto the clavicle to compress the brachial plexus of nerves. (Figure 4)

Step 2. Release the pectorals major and minor muscles.

After doing myofascial release to the pectorals major (Figure 5), treat trigger points in the pectorals minor (Figure 6), and stretch the pectoralis major and minor muscles. Make sure to treat a muscle strain in the pectorals minor, if found, and address capsular adhesions of the shoulder if there is a bone on bone like end feel when stretching the pecs.

Step 3. Release the biceps (taking tension of bicipital apeneurosis). (Figure 7) If there is a strain in the bicipital apeneurosis treat that after releasing the biceps muscle belly. The median nerve will be scarred down by scar tissue in the bicipital apeneurosis if that is strained.

Step 4. Release the pronator teres. (Figure 8)

Keep in mind the median nerve passes through this muscle. In people that work on the computer, this is a posturally short muscle that often gets neglected in clients diagnosed with carpal tunnel problems.

Step 5. Release the wrist and hand flexors. (Figure 9) There are nine tendons that pass from these muscles under the flexor retinacculum. Tension in the wrist flexors cause overdevelopment of their tendons, and can compress the median nerve under the tight flexor retinaculum leading to "true" carpal tunnel syndrome.

Step 6. Free up the flexor retinaculum, and release individual tendon adhesions in the carpal tunnel. Active myofascial release is done by having the client spread and extend the fingers to help release the flexor retinaculum and flexor tendons in the tunnel. (Figure 10)

This should be followed with the client stretching those same muscles as part of client self care. Ergonomics of the work station would also be addressed. This article will flow into a series of articles, starting with complicated forearm, wrist and hand conditions, to take a more detailed clinical look at conditions like "true carpal tunnel syndrome" and the significant difference between tendinitis, tendinosis and tenosynovitis conditions. The treatment by the manual therapist cannot get optimal results if we do not understand the different pathologies of these very different basic clinical conditions of the forearm, wrist and hand. Manual therapists will get their best results with complicated clinical conditions when they learn to match the appropriate modality or manual therapy discipline to each specific underlying pathology. Our industry also needs to also take a closer look at things like multiple crush phenomenon to eliminate multiple causes of conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome.


  1. Lowe, Whitney. Orthopedic Assessment in Massage Therapy, OR: Daviau Scott, 2006,
  2. Dalton, E. Myoskeletal Alignment Techniques. Oklahoma City, Ok: Freedom From Pain institute, 2005,
  3. Waslaski, James, Clinical Massage Therapy: A Structural Approach to Pain Management, Pearson Publishing 2011,

Editor's Note: Art images and case study information were taken from James Waslaski's new book with Pearson Publishing, Clinical Massage Therapy: A Structural Approach to Pain Management.