Is It Carpal Tunnel, Arthritis or Tendinitis?

Is It Carpal Tunnel, Arthritis or Tendinitis?

Your wrist is only a small part of your body, but it has a huge impact on your ability to perform daily tasks. Wrist pain impacts your ability to type, write, drive, lift and grip objects and much more. With that in mind, if you’re experiencing wrist pain, it pays to find out what is causing the pain.

Various conditions cause wrist pain with similar symptoms. Three common culprits of wrist pain include carpal tunnel, arthritis and tendinitis. These conditions affect different parts of the wrist. Still, as the wrist is compact, the symptoms of these three conditions often overlap. Read through the differences btween carpal tunnel, arthritis and tendinitis and how doctors typically diagnose these conditions.

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Carpal tunnel vs. arthritis vs. tendinitis

Carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis and tendinitis of the wrist all share similar symptoms. For this reason, they’re often confused with each other. Let’s look at some distinguishing characteristics of each condition to differentiate them.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

Your carpal tunnel is an opening in your wrist. Your carpal bones on the bottom of your wrist and the transverse carpal ligament that crosses the top of your wrist form this opening.

The median nerve, which provides sensory and motor function from your thumbs to your ring fingers, passes through the carpal tunnel. When this nerve is compressed, carpal tunnel syndrome occurs. Since this nerve doesn’t affect pinky finger function, a characteristic sign of carpal tunnel syndrome is wrist, thumb and finger pain that doesn’t involve the pinky.

Here are some common contributing factors to carpal tunnel syndrome:

  • Repetitive motions with your hands or fingers, such as typing, playing piano or various sports activities
  • Joint or bone conditions, such as arthritis or osteoporosis
  • Hormonal changes during pregnancy, menopause or due to a hormonal disorder
  • Changes in blood sugar levels, often due to type 2 diabetes
  • Wrist injuries, such as strains, sprains, fractures, dislocations and others

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome

With carpal tunnel syndrome, you may experience:

  • Burning, swelling or numbness in your thumb and three middle fingers on one or both hands
  • Weakness when gripping an object using the affected wrist
  • Pain or numbness that worsens at night, possibly interrupting sleep
  • Tingling that extends up your arm

How to diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome

Since carpal tunnel syndrome affects the nerves, it is often diagnosed using the nerve conduction velocity (NCV) test. With the NCV test, a doctor places a small electrode on your skin near your elbow. The electrode sends a mild electrical current to your median nerve to test how fast it travels from your elbow to your fingers. If it takes longer than expected, they will likely diagnose you with carpal tunnel syndrome.

If your doctor requires more reliable testing, they will order an imaging test to get a clearer picture of the nerves, ligaments and muscles in your wrist. Some imaging tests that can help with a carpal tunnel diagnosis include:


Whereas carpal tunnel syndrome involves nerve pain, arthritis involves joint pain. Two types of arthritis that affect the wrists are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). OA occurs when the cartilage in your joints wears away due to age or overuse. In contrast, RA is an autoimmune condition. With RA, your immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium, which produces synovial fluid that lubricates your joints, causing joint inflammation, pain and stiffness.

Contributing factors

Contributing factors to arthritis include:

  • Age
  • Genetics
  • Obesity
  • Overuse
  • Past trauma to the wrist
  • Repetitive strain injuries (RSIs), such as tendinitis

Symptoms of arthritis in the wrist

The specific symptoms of arthritis in the wrist vary slightly depending on the type of arthritis you’re dealing with. For example, you may experience fever or fatigue with RA but not with OA. Some general arthritis symptoms include:

  • Clicking or grinding sounds when you move your wrist
  • Irritation or pain when turning a door handle, gripping objects or twisting a lid
  • Reduced range of motion in your wrist
  • Redness, swelling and weakness in your wrist joints

Since arthritis affects the joints and not the nerves, unlike carpal tunnel syndrome, you’re unlikely to experience tingling up your arm with arthritis of the wrist. Like carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis is a progressive condition that worsens without treatment.

How to diagnose arthritis

When screening for arthritis, your doctor may check your range of motion and ask you what symptoms you’re experiencing. They may order imaging tests if they need more information, such as an MRI, ultrasound, or x-ray scans. They may also order blood testing to rule out or confirm RA if they’re unsure about the type of arthritis you’re experiencing.


Tendinitis in your wrist occurs when one or more of the tendons in your wrist experience inflammation and irritation due to injury or overuse. Tendons are fibrous tissues that attach your muscles to your bones and joints. Due to the proximity of tendons to joints, tendinitis is often confused with the early stages of arthritis.

You may experience tendinitis in your wrist if you frequently participate in repetitive activities, such as:

  • Gardening or landscaping
  • Painting
  • Scrubbing
  • Typing or playing the piano
  • Woodworking

Symptoms of tendinitis in the wrist

If you have tendinitis in your wrist, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Cracking or grating sensation when you move your wrist
  • Dull, achy pain that increases when you move your wrist
  • Mild swelling, numbness, warmth and tenderness around the wrist joint

Unlike wrist arthritis, tendinitis usually goes away with conservative treatment. If the tendon ruptures, surgery is typically necessary to repair the damaged tissue. Sudden, severe pain usually accompanies a ruptured tendon.

How to diagnose tendinitis

Most of the time, doctors can diagnose tendinitis with only a physical examination. They may order imaging tests to rule out other conditions that cause similar symptoms, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis.

Request screening for arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis with Health Images

Request screening for arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or tendinitis with Health Images

If you’re experiencing wrist pain, our expert diagnostic team at Health Images can help find out the cause. We offer a diverse range of world-class imaging services to patients in the Denver area. We prioritize a smooth, simple experience, from our comfortable waiting rooms to full explanations of your procedures. Find your nearest location to request an appointment with our team at Health Images today!

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