Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Workup

Updated: Feb 27, 2018
  • Author: Nigel L Ashworth, MBChB, MSc, FRCPC; Chief Editor: Milton J Klein, DO, MBA  more...
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Laboratory Studies

No blood tests exist for the diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome; however, laboratory testing for associated conditions (eg, diabetes) may be performed when clinically indicated.


Imaging Studies

No imaging studies are considered routine in the diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS).

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the carpal tunnel is particularly useful preoperatively if a space-occupying lesion in the carpal tunnel is suggested. Signal abnormality can be detected in the median nerve in some cases of CTS, but how these abnormalities correlate to diagnosis and physiologic severity is not clear. MRI does not rule out the multitude of other differential diagnoses and is time consuming and resource intensive. [30]

Many clinical neurophysiology laboratories are now using ultrasonography as an adjunct to electrodiagnostic studies. Ultrasonography potentially can identify space-occupying lesions in and around the median nerve, confirm abnormalities in the median nerve (eg, increased cross-sectional area) that can be diagnostic of CTS, and help to guide steroid injections into the carpal tunnel. [7, 8, 9]


Other Tests

Electrophysiologic studies, [3, 4, 5] including electromyography (EMG) and nerve conductions studies (NCS), are the first-line investigations in suggested carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). [6] Abnormalities on electrophysiologic testing, in association with specific symptoms and signs, are considered the criterion standard for CTS diagnosis. In addition, other neurologic diagnoses can be excluded with these test results. NCS in a patient with CTS are seen in the images below.

Sensory nerve conduction studies from the left han Sensory nerve conduction studies from the left hand of a patient with a several-year history of numbness and weakness (responses from the median nerve in the right hand were completely absent). Note marked slowing of the conduction velocity (CV) to 29.8 and 25.5 m/s for digits 3 and 1, respectively (normal >50 m/s). The amplitude for both also is reduced markedly (normal >10). These findings are consistent with carpal tunnel syndrome.
Motor nerve conduction studies from the left hand Motor nerve conduction studies from the left hand of a patient with a several-year history of numbness and weakness (responses from the median nerve in the right hand were completely absent). Note that the conduction velocity (CV) across the carpal tunnel segment slows severely to 18.3 m/s (normal >50 m/s) and that the distal motor latency is prolonged at 6.3 ms (normal < 4.2 ms). Amplitudes are low for the wrist and elbow stimulus sites at 4.7 mV (normal >5 mV), but amplitudes are 31% higher distal to the carpal tunnel (at the palm). This discrepancy may represent conduction block (neurapraxia) at the level of the carpal tunnel or coactivation of the ulnar branch to adductor pollicis. Needle electromyography is required to determine whether axonal loss is present.

Electrophysiologic testing also can provide an accurate assessment of how severe the damage to the nerve is, thereby directing management and providing objective criteria for the determination of prognosis. CTS is usually divided into mild, moderate, and severe; however, criteria for this assessment usually vary from lab to lab. In general, patients with mild CTS have sensory abnormalities alone on electrophysiologic testing, and patients with sensory plus motor abnormalities have moderate CTS. However, any evidence of axonal loss (eg, decreased or absent sensory or motor responses distal to the carpal tunnel or neuropathic abnormalities on needle EMG) is classified as severe CTS.

Changes in electrophysiologic results over time can be used to assess the success of various treatment modalities.

The American Association of Electrodiagnostic Medicine has published standards and guidelines that govern the minimum number of studies that should be performed to diagnose CTS. [4]

Other quantitative tests, such as thermography and vibrometry, have been shown to be inferior to electrophysiologic examination and, because they have not been supported by controlled studies, are not recommended.