Exercises for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

You don’t want to complain, but lately you have felt a little tingling or numbness in your hand and wrist. Sometimes, the pain is sharp. Other times it seems to travel from your wrist up through your arm. You try to shake it off but it just won’t go away.

Is it just a cramp? A muscle spasm? More than likely, you could be experiencing carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition seen annually by physicians more than two million times. It strikes three times as many women as it does men and it accounts for 10 to 20 percent of all repetitive strain injuries.

What is it?

Your median nerve, which controls sensations for the palm side of your thumb and fingers (except the pinkie) runs from your wrist to your forearm. It is encapsulated within the carpal tunnel, which is comprised of small bones. (Carpal comes from carpus, the Latin word for wrist.) Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when this nerve becomes impinged, pressed, or squeezed within this bony tunnel. This can cause various symptoms including numbness, pain, tingling or a "funny feeling" in the fingers, hand, and/or wrist. Other classic symptoms include:
  • Burning, tingling, or itching numbness in the palm of the hand and fingers, especially the thumb, index, and middle fingers
  • Fingers that feel useless and swollen with little or no apparent swelling
  • The need to "shake out" the hand or wrist upon waking
  • Decreased grip strength
  • Inability to grasp small objects
  • Inability to distinguish between hot and cold to the touch

What causes it?

You may think that carpal tunnel syndrome occurs only in people who work at a computer all day, but carpal tunnel syndrome is typically caused by a combination of factors that increase pressure on the median nerve—not just excessive computer use. Some people have a genetic predisposition caused by an unusually small carpal tunnel. In some cases, doctors are unable to identify a cause of the symptoms. Additional factors that can contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome include:
  • Injury or trauma to the wrist that causes swelling
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Mechanical problems of the wrist joint
  • Work stress
  • Repeated use of vibrating tools
  • Fluid retention during pregnancy or menopause
  • A cyst or tumor in the canal

How can you prevent it?

More than one quarter of a million carpal tunnel surgeries are performed each year in the U.S. and 47 percent of those cases are work-related. To prevent this condition in the workplace, workers should perform stretching exercises (see at the end of the article), take frequent rest breaks, wear splints to keep the wrists in a straight position, and use correct posture and wrist position when using a keyboard. There are many products created for office workers that are designed to make the workstation more ergonomic. Tools such as specially designed computer mouse and keyboards place the hand and wrist in a more ergonomic position to keep the wrists straight instead of bent or cocked. These tools may look a little funny and might even cost a bit more but are definitely worth the investment if you spend a large portion of the day on the computer. In many cases, your workplace will purchase them for you if you simply ask!

For other jobs that entail repetitive use of the hands, apply the same principles above, but look for opportunities to rotate job functions throughout the day (if possible) so that you're not performing the same repetitive tasks all day long. Think ergonomically when looking at a job function and choosing tools for the job. Be as body friendly as possible, considering alignment and form when you move during your tasks.

Anyone can take steps like these to help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome (or help alleviate its symptoms), but research has yet to prove that these steps will definitely prevent the problem.

How is it treated?

Carpal tunnel syndrome can be treated in a surgical or non-surgical manner. The initial treatment usually involves resting the affected hand or wrist for at least two weeks, avoiding activities that may worsen symptoms, and immobilizing the wrist in a splint to avoid more damage from twisting or bending.

If the wrist is inflamed, cool packs may reduce swelling. One interesting note that deserves special attention is that yoga has been shown to effectively reduce pain and improve grip strength among patients with carpal tunnel syndrome! Your best bet is to consult with your physician to discuss which treatment options may be best for you.

Carpal tunnel exercises can help prevent and ease the pain of carpal tunnel syndrome. While these exercises alone are not a substitute for treatment and ergonomic positioning, they may offer some relief.

You can try this movement series at the start and end of your work shift, as well as during any breaks you take throughout the day.
  1. Stand up straight and extend both arms straight out in front of you.
  2. Extend your wrists and fingers acutely as if they were giving a "stop" signal. Hold this position for 5 seconds.
  3. Now straighten your wrists while relaxing your fingers.
  4. Keeping your wrists straight, make a fist and squeeze it tightly. Hold for 5 seconds.
  5. Keeping your fists clenched, bend your wrists down. Hold this position for 5 seconds.
  6. Straighten both wrists and relax your fingers again.
  7. Repeat this series 5-10 times, then relax your arms by your sides.
Even if you haven't experienced the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, these exercises are simple, easy and feel great for anyone who uses the computers, works with hand tools, sews, plays an instrument or does other repetitive hand/finger tasks. Don't wait until your hands and wrists cause you pain—take proactive steps today.