Patients with carpal tunnel syndrome are more than twice as likely to have migraine headaches, according to data derived from nearly 26,000 Americans responding to a national health survey. Among other questions, participants were asked whether they had had carpal tunnel syndrome during the past year or "severe headache or migraine" during the past three months.

Patients with carpal tunnel syndrome have symptoms such as hand numbness and weakness, resulting from pressure on the median nerve in the wrist. 

The association also runs in the other direction, with migraine patients having higher odds of carpal tunnel syndrome, say Dr. Huay-Zong Law and colleagues of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

The authors say findings are evidence for the use of nerve decompression surgery as a treatment for migraine headaches. 

Association between Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Migraine

Based on survey responses, 3.7 percent had carpal tunnel syndrome and 16.3 percent had migraine headaches. Associations between these two conditions were analyzed, with adjustment for patient- and health-related risk factors. The results suggested that people with migraine were more likely to have carpal tunnel syndrome, and vice versa. Migraine was present in 34 percent of respondents with carpal tunnel syndrome, compared to 16 percent of those without carpal tunnel syndrome. After adjustment for other factors, the odds of having migraine were 2.6 times higher for those with carpal tunnel syndrome.

Carpal tunnel syndrome was present in eight percent of participants with migraine versus three percent of those without migraine. On adjusted analysis, the odds of having  carpal tunnel syndrome were about 2.7 times higher for those with migraine.

The two conditions had some shared risk factors--especially female sex, obesity, diabetes, and smoking. Carpal tunnel syndrome was associated with older age and migraine with younger age. Both conditions were less common in Asians, and carpal tunnel syndrome was less common in Hispanics. The associations between carpal tunnel syndrome and migraine were independent of all of these factors.

Could Migraine Indicate Higher Future Risk of CTS?

Both carpal tunnel syndrome and migraines are common conditions with high costs and disability. The contributing causes of both conditions are "poorly understood." Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common of a group of related conditions called compression neuropathies, with symptoms related to pressure on nerves.

Historically, migraine has not been considered to be a compression neuropathy. Law and colleagues write, "Recently, however, there is some evidence that migraine headache may be triggered by nerve compression in the head and neck, with some patients responding to nerve decompression by surgical release."

Some studies have reported improvement in migraine headaches after surgery to relieve pressure on nerves at specific migraine "trigger points." However, this concept remains "controversial" and "heavily debated," according to the authors.

The new study is the first to show an association between carpal tunnel syndrome and migraine. The nature of the connection remains unclear--the two conditions may share some "common systemic or neurologic risk factor," the researchers write.

Noting that migraine tends to occur at younger ages and CTS at older ages, Law and coauthors call for further studies to determine whether migraine headache may be an "early indicator" of patients who are more likely to develop CTS in the future. If so, such a connection "would allow for earlier diagnosis and treatment, or even prevention, of CTS by modification of risk factors," they conclude. 

Citation: "An Association between Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Migraine Headaches-National Health Interview Survey, 2010." Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery--Global Open doi: 10.1097/GOX.0000000000000257