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7 easy carpal tunnel exercises to relieve symptoms and get your hands back

Wrist pain got you down? Try these simple stretches and exercises to help relieve the pain

Carpal tunnel syndrome, which is a painful condition of the wrist and hands, can be surprisingly limiting. Suddenly, activities like typing or texting on your phone, playing basketball or tennis, playing a musical instrument, or even driving can become uncomfortable. The good news is that you can perform some very basic stretches and strengthening exercises for carpal tunnel syndrome that can help prevent wrist pain and help you rehab and recover from carpal tunnel syndrome once symptoms appear.

If you’re starting to notice a twinge or ache in your wrist or hands after a long day in front of the computer, keep reading for the best easy carpal tunnel exercises and stretches for carpal tunnel syndrome relief. Be sure to see a doctor for the best treatment plan possible, especially if the pain doesn’t subside.

Carpal tunnel Syndrome from typing.
Pixabay

What is carpal tunnel syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful condition of the wrist and/or hand caused by pressure or compression of the median nerve, a long nerve that runs from its origin in the spinal cord down through the arm, elbow, wrist, and hand.

Between the forearm and the wrist, the median nerve travels through a tight structure of connective tissue (known as the carpal tunnel) on its way towards the palm and fingers. When that nerve is pinched or damaged, that’s where the tingling and pain of carpal tunnel syndrome starts.

What are the main causes of carpal tunnel syndrome?

Pressure along the median nerve, either further up its course or in the carpal tunnel itself, can cause the uncomfortable symptoms associated with carpal tunnel syndrome such as pain, tingling, and numbness in the wrist, hands, and first three fingers.

Typically, carpal tunnel syndrome has a gradual onset, so as soon as you start noticing symptoms, it’s important to begin addressing them to identify the root cause of the compression on the median nerve. For example, many people develop carpal tunnel syndrome from using poor ergonomics when they type on the computer. If you rest your inner wrist along the edge of the keyboard or desk as you type, it will press on the carpal tunnel. Make sure your hands are lifted up.

If you aren’t sure what’s causing the symptoms you’re experiencing, it can be helpful to work with a physical therapist who can identify potential pressure points along the path of the median nerve and develop a targeted treatment program for you.

Can you fix carpal tunnel with exercise?

Although carpal tunnel syndrome treatment can be complicated, depending on how severe your symptoms are and the particular root cause in your case, you can help reduce pain by strengthening the muscles surrounding and controlling the wrist and hand and stretching the tissues abutting the carpal tunnel and the median nerve.

Additionally, stretching the postural muscles can relieve pressure on the median nerve closer to its point of origin. Unlike many traditional stretches for tight tissues that involve holding a position for 30 seconds or more, most of the effective stretches for carpal tunnel syndrome involve controlled movements that help the median nerve glide more easily.

The best carpal tunnel exercises and stretches 

Here are some of the best stretches and strengthening exercises for carpal tunnel syndrome.

Wrist Flexion/Extension

Tightness in the wrist flexors and extensors can exacerbate the pain and stiffness caused by carpal tunnel syndrome. Additionally, by working on the mobility of these muscles, you help them relax and release tension around the median nerve.

Here are the steps:

  • Lift your arm up and bend your elbow so that your upper arm is parallel to the floor and your hand is pointing towards the ceiling. Rotate your hand so that your palm faces your face.
  • In one fluid motion, extend the wrist (moving your palm to face the ceiling) and then flex it all the way forward so that your palm faces the inside of your wrist with your hand folded over.
  • Keep going back-and-forth in a smooth motion 10 times.

Median Nerve Glides

This stretch for carpal tunnel pain helps mobilize the median nerve to get it “unstuck“ wherever it may be trapped or compressed along its pathway.

Here are the steps:

  • Start with the affected arm stretched out to the side of your body parallel to the floor (like half of the letter T) and keep your fingers curled toward the ceiling. 
  • Gently tilt your head to the opposite direction, as if trying to bring your ear to the shoulder.
  • Extend your wrist, pointing your fingers towards the floor as you simultaneously tilt your head towards your outstretched arms.
  • Turn your head to the starting position while flexing your wrist and curling your fingers back up towards the ceiling as they were in the beginning.
  • Continue this motion four to five times, moving slowly and with care. If you experience any pain, stop immediately.

Wrist Circles

When the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome first appear, the pain can cause you to limit the motion of your wrists to reduce discomfort. This can lead to increased tightness and weakness in the muscles controlling the wrist. This exercise for carpal tunnel helps maintain the wrist mobility needed for activities of daily living such as using a knife, typing, brushing your teeth, or holding a dog leash.

Here are the steps: 

  • Hold your arm out straight, with your palm facing away from you as if signaling someone to stop. 
  • Rotate your wrist in a complete circle clockwise.
  • After five rotations, rotate your wrist in a counterclockwise direction.
  • After five counterclockwise rotations, flex your wrist so that your fingers are pointing down towards the floor.
  • Complete five wrist circles in each direction.

Chest Opener Stretch

Poor posture, including slouching and hunching over a keyboard or phone, can cause tightness in the chest muscles and overstretching of the muscles in the upper back. The postural muscles also affect the health of the median nerve, so it’s important to stretch and strengthen them and use good posture when dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome.

This stretch for carpal tunnel syndrome opens up the chest. Here are the steps:

  • Bring your arms out to either side like a giant letter T, and then continue bringing them backwards until your hands are clasped together behind your back.
  • Press your chest out to deepen the stretch.

Towel Squeezes

It’s important to work on your grip strength, and this exercise increases grip strength and helps increase strength in the extensors and flexors of the wrist. You can use a towel or a squishy ball like a stress ball.

Here are the steps:

  • Squeeze a stress ball or hand towel as hard as you can while simultaneously extending your wrist (bringing your fingers towards the ceiling and palm away from the body).
  • Perform 10 squeezes, holding each for three to five seconds.
  • Repeat the exercise, but this time, flex your wrist so that the fingers face the floor and your palm faces your body.
  • Perform another 10 squeezes.

Letter T Raises

This carpal tunnel exercise strengthens the trapezius muscle in the upper back, which helps support ideal posture and prevents compression on the median nerve.

Here are the steps:

  • Lie on your stomach with your forehead resting on a rolled-up hand towel or small pillow. Place your arms out to either side of your body so that you form a giant letter T.
  • Squeeze the muscles in your upper back to lift your arms up off the ground, keeping your elbows straight. You can hold light dumbbells or water bottles to increase the intensity of the exercise.
  • Lower your arms back down slowly and with control. 
  • Perform two to three sets of 20 repetitions.

Tendon Glides 

This final mobility exercise for carpal tunnel syndrome helps keep the tendons of the hand and fingers strong and mobile.

There are several tendon glide exercises for carpal tunnel syndrome, but here are a few you can do to get started:

  1. Make a fist, squeeze, hold for a few seconds, and relax. Repeat 20 times.
  2. Make a claw hand by bending just your fingers so that the pads of the fingertips touch the lower third of your fingers, and then straighten them again. Repeat 20 times.
  3. Form an “L” with your hand by keeping your fingers completely straight and bending at the base of the fingers so that your fingers are at a 90-degree angle with your palm. Relax and repeat 20 times.
  4. Fold your fingers down one at a time to your palm and then open them back up. Repeat 20 times.

Remember, the sooner you begin rehab exercises and stretches for carpal tunnel syndrome, the more effective they will be at alleviating symptoms. Try performing these mobility and strengthening exercises once or twice a day as tolerated.

If your symptoms do not respond or start to get worse, visit a physical therapist for an evaluation and more thorough treatment plan.

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