Carpal Tunnel Exercises and Stretches to Overcome Wrist Pain

Carpal tunnel syndrome, which is a painful wrist and hand condition, 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 very basic stretches and strengthening exercises for carpal tunnel syndrome that can help prevent wrist pain and help you rehabilitate and recover from carpal tunnel syndrome once symptoms appear.

If you start noticing pinching or pain in your wrist or hands after a long day at the computer, keep reading for the best easy carpal tunnel exercises and stretches for carpal tunnel syndrome relief. Be sure to consult a doctor for the best possible treatment plan, especially if the pain does not subside.

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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 to the arm, elbow, wrist and by hand.

Between the forearm and the wrist, the median nerve passes through a tight structure of connective tissue (known as the carpal tunnel) towards the palm and fingers. When this nerve is pinched or damaged, this is where the tingling and pain of carpal tunnel syndrome begins.

What are the main causes of carpal tunnel syndrome?

Pressure along the median nerve, either further up its course or within 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 all three first fingers.

Typically, carpal tunnel syndrome has a gradual onset, so as soon as you start noticing symptoms, it’s important to start treating 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 typing on the computer. If you rest your inner wrist along the edge of the keyboard or desk while typing, it will press down on the carpal tunnel. Make sure your hands are up.

If you are unsure of the cause of the symptoms you are experiencing, it may 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 treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome can be complicated, depending on the severity of your symptoms and the root cause of your case, you can help reduce pain by strengthening the muscles around and controlling the wrist and hand and stretching the tissues adjoining 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 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. In addition, by working on the mobility of these muscles, you help them relax and release tension around the median nerve.

Here are the steps:

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

Median nerve slips

This stretch for carpal tunnel pain helps mobilize the median nerve to “unstick” it wherever it may be trapped or compressed along its path.

Here are the steps:

  • Start with the affected arm stretched out at 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 in the opposite direction, as if trying to bring your ear to the shoulder.
  • Extend your wrist, pointing your fingers toward the floor while simultaneously tilting your head toward your outstretched arms.
  • Rotate your head back to the starting position while flexing your wrist and curling your fingers toward the ceiling as they were at the start.
  • Continue this movement four to five times, moving slowly and carefully. If you feel pain, stop immediately.

wrist circles

When the first symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome appear, the pain may cause you to limit the movement of your wrists to reduce discomfort. This can lead to increased tension and weakness in the muscles controlling the wrist. This carpal tunnel exercise helps maintain 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 straight, palm facing you as if signaling someone to stop.
  • Rotate your wrist in a full circle clockwise.
  • After five rotations, rotate your wrist counterclockwise.
  • After five counter-clockwise rotations, flex your wrist so that your fingers are pointing toward the floor.
  • Perform five wrist circles in each direction.

Chest opening stretch

Poor posture, including slouching and hunching over a keyboard or phone, can cause tension in chest muscles and overstretching of upper back muscles. Postural muscles also affect the health of the median nerve, so stretching and strengthening them and using good posture is important when dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome.

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

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

Towel rails

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

Here are the steps:

  • Squeeze a stress ball or towel as hard as you can while simultaneously extending your wrist (bringing your fingers toward 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 your fingers are facing the floor and your palm is facing your body.
  • Perform another 10 squeezes.

Letter T raises

This carpal tunnel exercise strengthens the trapezius muscle in the upper back, which helps maintain 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 towel or small pillow. Place your arms on either side of your body to form a giant letter T.
  • Squeeze your upper back muscles to lift your arms off the floor, keeping your elbows straight. You can hold light dumbbells or water bottles to increase the intensity of the exercise.
  • Lower your arms slowly and with control.
  • Perform two to three sets of 20 repetitions.

Tendon slips

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

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

  1. Make a fist, clench, hold for a few seconds and relax. Repeat 20 times.
  2. Do a claw hand by only bending your fingers so that the fingertip pads touch the lower third of your fingers, then straighten them again. Repeat 20 times.
  3. Form an “L” shape with your hand, keeping your fingers completely straight and bending the base of the fingers so that your fingers form a 90 degree angle with your palm. Relax and repeat 20 times.
  4. Bend your fingers one at a time towards your palm, then open them again. Repeat 20 times.

Remember, the earlier you start rehabilitation exercises and stretches for carpal tunnel syndrome, the more effective they will be in relieving symptoms. Try performing these mobility and strengthening exercises once or twice a day depending on your tolerance.

If your symptoms are unresponsive or begin to worsen, see a physical therapist for further evaluation and treatment plan.

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About Irene J. O'Donnell

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