For three of the most common hand conditions, MUSC Health’s highly skilled surgical team offers specialized and minimally invasive solutions.

Milton B. Armstrong, M.D., professor of Surgery and Division Chief of Plastic, Reconstructive and Hand Surgery at MUSC Health, details the less invasive treatment options that exist for carpal tunnel syndrome, Dupuytren's contracture and Raynaud's disease. MUSC’s surgeons have the specialized training to consistently execute successful results.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Endoscopic Treatment Approach

According to Dr. Armstrong, carpal tunnel syndrome is one of the most common conditions that bring patients into his office. This condition is caused by compression of the median nerve at the wrist, causing numbness and tingling in the fingers and weakness in the hand.

For the past century, open surgery has been the primary treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome. In this procedure, surgeons make an incision on the palm, cut the ligament that covers the nerve causing the problem and then close the skin.

Over time, surgeons have attempted this procedure using smaller and smaller incisions at the wrist. Today, Dr. Armstrong says he uses a very small incision about a centimeter in length and uses an endoscope to view the ligament from the underside. A knife attached to the endoscope then cuts the ligament and the surgeon closes the skin with one or two sutures—in a procedure that can be completed in 15 minutes or less.

For patients who are a good fit for this procedure, Dr. Armstrong says the less invasive nature can make for a quicker recovery. Often, patients can return to work 10 days to 2 weeks faster than if they had undergone the open technique.

“That helps people who have jobs that require significant use of their hands for activities as well as others, such as students, who have busy lives to return to. It's a very useful procedure,” he says.

Dupuytren's Contracture: Injection Treatment

A less common hand condition that Dr. Armstrong treats, Dupuytren's contracture is primarily seen in patients of Northern European ancestry. Patients develop contractures in the palm and the fingers, which pull the fingers down toward the palm over time. While not generally painful, the condition can cause stiffness and rigidity, making movement of the fingers difficult.

Dupuytren's contracture has traditionally been treated with an open technique. In the procedure, a hand surgeon opens the skin, then separates and takes out tissue that's fibrotic, which is otherwise normal tissue that becomes problematic in certain groups of people. This can be a lengthy procedure, lasting up to 2 hours in some cases, and requires meticulous dissection of important structures, such as digital nerves and flexor tendons.

Today, Dr. Armstrong and other MUSC Health surgeons can often bypass surgery entirely with an injection treatment. “We have an enzyme, called Xiaflex, that we can inject into the contracted cord to break it up,” he says. “In many cases, we can avoid open surgery.”

Patients receive the injection and then follow up with their doctor, anywhere from 24 hours to 7 days after the procedure. The doctor then breaks up the contracture manually—no operating room necessary.

“That's been a boon for these patients, especially people who may be older or have other medical problems that make them not ideal candidates to go under anesthesia,” explains Dr. Armstrong. “We can now treat this problem without having to put a patient under an anesthetic and open the skin with a scalpel.”

Raynaud's Disease: Botox® Offers Relief

Raynaud's disease, a type of vasospastic disorder, happens when a spasm of the arteries travels to the fingers. This can either be an isolated problem, more common in young women, or an issue related to other disease processes, such as lupus.

In severe cases, patients can develop ulcers and pain in their fingers due to lack of blood flow. “In some patients where it's very severe, to the point where the tissues have died off, we have to do amputations of some parts of the fingers,” says Dr. Armstrong.

Traditionally, doctors have performed an open operation that aims to release tissues around the arteries to allow for better blood flow.

“The smooth muscles within arterial walls are controlled by little nerves, the digital nerves, and so we separate the nerves from the arteries using magnification, sometimes with the microscope,” says Dr. Armstrong. “It’s a technically demanding operation and doesn’t guarantee success. Those patients have significant pain from the surgery, and then we have to wait for days or weeks to the results of the surgery.”

Hand surgeons treating Raynaud's disease now have another treatment option to consider: Botox®, or botulinum toxin A. Commonly used to treat a host of cosmetic problems, such as wrinkles of the face and forehead, Dr. Armstrong says Botox® can be a useful adjunct for this problem.

“What we have found is that the botulinum toxin, which relaxes smooth muscles, can be injected into some patients’ hands,” says Dr. Armstrong. “It breaks up the spasm and can have as good a result for some patients as doing the open surgery.”

Carpal Tunnel and Other Techniques Require Intensive Training

These three procedures illustrate how advanced, minimally invasive approaches can offer a multitude of benefits to patients, possibly limiting the need for surgery, often with a similar or better result. However, Dr. Armstrong emphasizes the need for specialized training in performing these hand procedures.

In the division of plastic surgery alone, MUSC Health has four physicians who are fellowship-trained hand surgeons, three of whom are also board certified in surgery of the hand. All of this additional training helps guide surgeons toward the best treatment results for patients.

“Physicians should ensure they’re referring patients to a surgeon who is trained and who understands the anatomy and pathophysiology of these problems,” says Dr. Armstrong, noting that an open procedure may be the next option if a less invasive technique doesn’t offer patients sufficient relief or isn’t recommended.

When patients discuss their treatment options with an expert in minimally invasive and open hand techniques, they can ensure they receive well-rounded recommendations and effective results.

For more information, contact Dr. Armstrong at armstrom@musc.edu.