It won’t kill you—but when you have carpal tunnel syndrome, the numbness, tingling and/or throbbing pain in your wrist and hand can seriously degrade your life. It can be difficult to work…to pursue sports and hobbies…even to just relax. And common treatments can be frustrating or even risky.
One of my colleagues with carpal tunnel syndrome must wear a wrist guard every night and at least part of the day, which she finds frustrating because it’s uncomfortable and makes it hard for her to type on her computer. And another had to have surgery to treat the problem—that can help relieve symptoms, but as with any surgery, it has risks, including nerve damage, infection, scarring and loss of wrist strength.
More on Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
That’s why I was delighted to hear that a few simple stretches might help ease the pain of carpal tunnel syndrome, according to Kelly Jo Wantz, a certified hand therapist at the Kernan Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation Hospital in Baltimore. She told me how to do them…
WHAT NOT TO DO
First, Wantz explained to me one reason why we may get carpal tunnel syndrome—and why it hurts so much! The trouble zone, she said, is just below the center of the wrist, a narrow tunnel through which the median nerve and nine tendons connect from the forearm to the hand and fingers. One potential cause is a constant repetitive motion (such as typing, gardening, chopping food and handling tools), which eventually can cause the median nerve and tendons to swell. That makes the tunnel squeeze the nerve and tendons, which causes the discomfort.
Many people assume that exercises to strengthen the wrist will relieve carpal tunnel, Wantz told me—in fact, she said, it’s the opposite. She explained that squeezing a rubber ball and lifting small weights actually add to the problem by increasing inflammation in the tendons and median nerve.
As an alternative strategy, Wantz and many other therapists get good results from certain specific, light hand stretches. These are safe for almost everyone, but of course, check with your own doctor before trying them.
Wantz recommends a multipart exercise called tendon gliding, which is designed to ease pressure on the tendons and, therefore, ease pain in the carpal tunnel. You can do this sequence sitting or standing. Do it five times to complete one “set,” and do three sets scattered throughout the day every day.
- Home position: Hold your arm down straight at your side and, bending your elbow, raise your forearm so your hand is at shoulder height, palm facing out. Spread your thumb from your fingers, but hold your four fingers together, as if indicating “halt!” Hold that position for three seconds. You will return your hand to this “home position” after each of the following exercises.
- Claw position: From the home position, curl the middle and upper fingers (the parts of your fingers above your middle knuckles) to their natural touch points on the top of the palm. Hold this position for three seconds and then return to the home position.
- Full-fist position: Curl your fingers into a complete, tight fist, keeping your thumb at the side of your index finger. Hold for three seconds, then return to home.
- Table-top position: Bend your fingers (not your thumb) only from the lowest knuckles so that the fingers are perpendicular to your palm, creating a “table-top” position. Hold for three seconds, then return to home.
- Flat position: Bend the middle and lowest knuckle joints until the tips of your fingers lie flat against the base of your palm. Hold for three seconds, then return to home.
Of course, if these stretches ever cause you any pain, stop doing them and consult with your doctor.