Carpal tunnel release can stop the progression of idiopathic median neuropathy at the wrist (carpal tunnel syndrome). Intermittent symptoms tend to resolve after surgery, but loss of sensibility can be permanent. Both pathophysiology (severe neuropathy) and mental health (symptoms of despair or worry) contribute to problematic recovery after carpal tunnel release, but their relative associations are unclear.
Is problematic initial recovery after carpal tunnel release associated with psychologic distress rather than with disease severity?
We retrospectively studied 156 patients who underwent in-office carpal tunnel release between November 2017 and February 2020, and we recorded their symptoms of anxiety (Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7 [GAD]) and depression (Patient Health Questionnaire), signs of severe median neuropathy (loss of sensibility, thenar muscle atrophy, and palmar abduction weakness), and problematic recovery. The initial recovery (first 2 weeks) was categorized as problematic if the patient was upset about persistent numbness, experienced unsettling postoperative pain, developed hand stiffness, or experienced wound issues—all of which are routinely recorded in the medical record by the treating surgeon along with signs of severe median neuropathy. Twenty-four percent (38 of 156) of patients had a problematic initial recovery characterized by distress regarding persistent numbness (16% [25 of 156]), unsettling pain (8% [12 of 156]), hand stiffness (5% [8 of 156]), or wound issues (1% [2 of 156]); 6% (9 of 156) of patients had more than one issue. Associations between problematic initial recovery and age, gender, symptoms of anxiety and depression, disease severity, specific exam findings, and insurance were evaluated using t-tests, Mann-Whitney tests, and chi-square tests, with the plan to perform logistic regression if at least two variables had an association with p < 0.10.
The only factor associated with problematic initial recovery was greater symptoms of anxiety (median GAD score 1.5 [interquartile range 0 to 7.8] for problematic initial recovery compared with a median score of 0 [IQR 0 to 2] for nonproblematic recovery; p = 0.04), so we did not perform a logistic regression. Physical examination findings consistent with severe median neuropathy were not associated with problematic initial recovery.
The finding that problematic initial recovery after carpal tunnel release was related to symptoms of anxiety and not to the severity of median neuropathy highlights the need to study the ability of efforts to ameliorate anxiety symptoms before carpal tunnel release as an effective intervention to reduce unplanned visits and additional tests, therapy, and repeat surgery, while improving patient-reported outcomes and experience.
Level of Evidence
Level III, therapeutic study.