Manual Therapy Versus Surgery for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: 4-Year Follow-Up From a Randomized Controlled Trial

Phys Ther. 2020 Oct 30;100(11):1987-1996. doi: 10.1093/ptj/pzaa150.


Objective: No study to our knowledge has investigated the effects longer than 1 year of manual therapy in carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of manual therapy versus surgery at 4-year follow-up and to compare the post-study surgery rate in CTS.

Methods: This randomized controlled trial was conducted in a tertiary public hospital and included 120 women with CTS who were randomly allocated to manual therapy or surgery. The participants received 3 sessions of physical therapy, including desensitization maneuvers of the central nervous system or carpal tunnel release combined with a tendon/nerve gliding exercise program at home. Primary outcome was pain intensity (mean and the worst pain). Secondary outcomes included functional status, symptom severity, and self-perceived improvement measured using a global rating of change scale. Outcomes for this analysis were assessed at baseline, 1 year, and 4 years. The rate of surgical intervention received by each group was assessed throughout the study.

Results: At 4 years, 97 (81%) women completed the study. Between-group changes for all outcomes were not significantly different at 1 year (mean pain: mean difference [MD] = -0.3, 95% CI = -0.9 to 0.3; worst pain: MD = -1.2, 95% CI = -3.6 to 1.2; function: MD = -0.1, 95% CI = -0.4 to 0.2; symptom severity: MD = -0.1, 95% CI = -0.3 to 0.1) and 4 years (mean pain: MD = 0.1, 95% CI = -0.2 to 0.4; worst pain: MD = 0.2, 95% CI = -0.8 to 1.2; function: MD = 0.1, 95% CI = -0.1 to 0.3; symptom severity: MD = 0.2, 95% CI = -0.2 to 0.6). Self-perceived improvement was also similar in both groups. No between-group differences (15% physical therapy vs 13% surgery) in surgery rate were observed during the 4 years.

Conclusions: In the long term, manual therapy, including desensitization maneuvers of the central nervous system, resulted in similar outcomes and similar surgery rates compared with surgery in women with CTS. Both interventions were combined with a tendon/nerve gliding exercise program at home.

Impact: This is the first study to our knowledge to report clinical outcomes and surgical rates during a 4-year follow-up and will inform decisions regarding surgical versus conservative management of CTS.

Lay summary: Women with CTS may receive similar benefit from a more conservative treatment-manual therapy-as they would from surgery.

Trial registration: NCT01789645.

Keywords: Carpal Tunnel; Physical Therapy; Surgery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome* / rehabilitation
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome* / surgery
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Musculoskeletal Manipulations*
  • Pain / rehabilitation*
  • Physical Therapy Modalities
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic

Associated data