Carpal Tunnel Exercises: How to Save Your Wrists
If you could lower your chances of needing surgery, would you do it? Carpal tunnel is something that affects almost everyone once in their lifetime. Although it is caused by a combination of lifestyle and genetics, if ignored, it could lead to the need for surgery. Fortunately, carpal tunnel could be managed by doing carpal tunnel exercises, so long as they are properly executed and done consistently.
What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome, or CTS, is the result of compression of the median nerve located in the wrist. It can cause numbness, stiffness, and pain in the hand and fingers. The median nerve travels through a narrow tunnel in the wrist made of bone and ligament and gives feeling to the thumb and fingers. If there is any swelling in the wrist, the tunnel gets squeezed and the median nerve becomes pinched, causing carpal tunnel symptoms.
With CST, your grip often becomes weaker, and you may find it harder to move your fingers. CTS is usually more noticeable in the first and middle fingers of the dominant hand. However, it may affect the whole hand. It is usually most painful in the morning when the hands have remained motionless and curled up through the night.
Causes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Although many of the carpal tunnel cases are due to strain and overuse, there are a variety of health conditions that can also cause symptoms such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, high blood pressure, arthritis, or traumas to the wrist.
Doctors or healthcare providers generally manipulate the hands to generate tingling or other symptoms, or give a nerve conduction velocity test to measure the speed of impulses as they pass through the carpal tunnel.
Stress Related Carpal Tunnel
Although it is true that the forces that cause carpal tunnel syndrome are in fact purely physical in nature, such as the nerves being compressed, recent research has shown that tendon swelling can occur due to the body’s reaction to chronically high stress.
The body has a global response to stress. When stress begins, the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response system kicks in to deal with it. All six organ systems of the NEM are affected. When stress is chronic, it can cause these organ systems to become strained and develop dysfunction. One such dysfunction is inflammation spreading throughout the body, particularly in the extremities.
Stress may not directly cause of carpal tunnel. However, it can produce the chronic inflammation that affects the tunnel and median nerve, increasing the risk factors for developing this painful ailment.
Pregnancy Induced Carpal Tunnel
Carpal tunnel is common among pregnant women, especially if they gain more than 35 pounds during pregnancy, are expecting more than one baby, or if their breasts have gotten bigger. All these factors can contribute to exerting more pressure on the shoulders, ribs, and arms and can affect the median nerve.
CTS usually disappears within three months of giving birth, although it may show up again during menopause.
Occupation Induced Carpal Tunnel
There are a number of occupations that have been linked to carpal tunnel syndrome. In this case, carpal tunnel is usually caused by the repetition of hand movements over years. Professions in which CTS is common include:
- A seamstress or tailor who grasps and tugs on fabric
- A dairy farmer who milks cows often
- An assembly line worker who continually handles objects on conveyor belts
- A mechanic who pushes down ratchets, uses screwdrivers, and hammers
Painter, gardeners, hairdressers, musicians, butchers, and locksmiths are among the many professions that utilize their hands in their work, and all are candidates for developing occupational induced carpal tunnel syndrome.
Stopping for brief moments throughout your day to stretch and exercise your hands with exercises such as the ones listed below could potentially save you from pain and possible surgery in the future.
Carpal Tunnel Exercises
Here are a few carpal tunnel exercises you can do anytime during the day whether sitting, standing, or waiting in the line at the grocery store. They don’t require any machinery or equipment. Just a few minutes of your time each day could aid in the health of your fingers, hands, and wrists.
- The Simple Fist Stretch. Make a fist then open your hands until your fingers are pointed straight up. If this is too painful, just make a fist and open the fingers, fanning them out as far as you can. Repeat 5-10 times.
- Prayer Stretch. Start with the hands in prayer position, then separate your palms while keeping your fingertips together, in a steeple-like position. Spread your fingers as wide as possible keeping the fingertips attached at all times, bringing the fingers into the center and out again in a stretching motion. This carpal tunnel exercise stretches the palmar, fascia, carpal tunnel structures and median nerve. These are the parts of the hand and wrist that get irritated and inflamed during a carpal tunnel episode.
- The Air Dry Shake. Just as it sounds, shake your hands as if you have just washed them and are air drying them. This can be done for a minute to two minutes every hour, or you can incorporate it into your day after each hand wash to make it part of your daily regimen. It keeps the flexor muscles and median nerve in good shape.
- The Zombie Stretch. One at time, stretch your arms in front of you at chest length, with your fingers facing the floor. With your other hand, apply pressure gently to the hand, stretching the wrist and fingers as far as they will comfortably go, and hold for 20 seconds. Switch hands and repeat two or three times on each side every hour if possible.
- Grip Strengthening. Another great carpal tunnel exercise is grip strengthening. Using a soft ball, such as a tennis ball or a stress relief ball, squeeze and release your grip, repeating five to ten times.
Stretching should be incorporated into your everyday activities. It is a very important part of a healthy lifestyle to keep the muscles, ligaments, and joints agile. Every part of your body can benefit from increased movement and mobility. Don’t just limit your stretching regimen to the exercises listed above, try to incorporate a total body stretching sequence daily.
Other Helpful Habits to Reduce Flare-Ups
Aside from daily carpal tunnel exercises, there are a few habits that can help ward off or prevent flare-ups.
- Keep your wrist in a neutral position as much as possible as it takes the pressure off of the median nerve. Try to avoid bending the wrists up or down. For example, if you spend significant time typing, rearrange your desk and chair so that you keep your wrists straight. To get into this habit, try wearing a wrist brace during activities that trigger the carpal tunnel pain.
- Switch hands often. If you are used to doing something with your right hand, switch it up and use the left. This is also great for stimulating and activating the brain.
- Watch your posture. Poor posture has a trickling effect. Slouching will cause your shoulders to roll forward, shorten your neck and shoulder muscles, thus aggravating the nerves in the neck. This could lead to a wide variety of bodily ailments, including wrist problems.
- Watch your body temperature. Being cold tends to stiffen the joints and muscles. Keep the wrists warm with gloves or long sleeved shirts. However, if you are having a flare-up, you may find the reverse is true, and that using intermittent cold packs help relieve some of the inflammation.
- Notice the force you use. You may not be aware of the force in which you conduct everyday activities with your hands. Maybe you grip your tools too tightly, or maybe you type aggressive all day long. Along with using carpal tunnel exercises, begin to notice if you apply too much pressure on your hands and wrists. If so, try to use a softer, more gentle approach.
The carpal tunnel exercises suggested above are great options. However, for more severe cases, your doctor may suggest corticosteroid injections, surgery, or physical therapy if the suggestions above don’t improve or relieve your symptoms.
Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome and Carpal Tunnel
In some cases, disruptions in the endocrine system and hormonal imbalances can result in carpal tunnel syndrome. For example, when the adrenal glands are dysfunctional, they cannot adequately produce the natural steroids needed to reduce inflammation and swelling. Those with Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) are more prone to these problems than others. Many AFS patients with carpal tunnel syndrome need steroids administered in medications if carpal tunnel exercises and splints are not relieving any symptoms. This can be a double-edged sword, however, as steroids may worsen adrenal fatigue as well if it is severe enough.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can also result from thyroid disease. It is uncertain whether it is caused by the excessive swelling, the hormonal imbalance, or a combination of the two.
If you are suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, it is important to contact a healthcare practitioner and begin exercises immediately. Quick attention to carpal tunnel could relieve symptoms before they become painful or worse, leading to the need for advanced measures including surgery. In severe cases, it could also be a side effect of an underlying illness and this should be examined to ensure you are best able to support your health.
© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
Should carpal tunnel exercises be done preventatively or only by sufferers?
Carpal tunnel exercises can definitely be done preventatively especially by those engaged in activities or jobs using their hands in repetitive motions for many hours during the day like typing or hammering. Taking a few minutes every hour can prevent pain and the need for surgery.