It could be carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful condition of the wrist or hand caused by pressure on the median nerve, which runs from your spinal cord down through the arm, elbow, wrist, and hand.
“Imagine trying to sip water through a pinched straw. When the water gets to the pinched portion, no water can get through,” says Autumn Hanson, DPT, a physical therapist and the owner of PERMISSION2MOVE. “A similar thing happens when the carpal tunnel narrows or the structures in it swell.”
- Autumn Hanson, DPT, physical therapist
This can cause pain, weakness, numbness, tingling, or a burning sensation in the forearm and hand, most commonly in the thumb, pointer, and ring finger, says Dr. Hanson. The onset is typically gradual. “Many patients first experience symptoms during their sleep: The odd sensation of numbness or tingling in the first three fingers makes them want to reposition their hand, after they shake it awake to get their sensation back,” she says.
Carpal tunnel can have a number of causes: “Injury to the arm or wrist; hormonal or metabolic changes during pregnancy, menopause, and even diabetes,” says Dr. Hanson. People with jobs or hobbies that require repetitive use of their hands (like video gamers, musicians, hairdressers, or, yes, desk workers) are also at risk.
Left untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome could cause lasting damage to the nerve. Fortunately, Dr. Hanson says that doing carpal tunnel stretches in the earliest stages can prevent more serious symptoms.
The best stretches for carpal tunnel syndrome
Since these stretches target the nerve, you'll want to take a different approach than you would for a tight muscle. “It is best not to hold the stretch,” Dr. Hanson says. “Releasing a nerve from tension is best done with a fluid motion, rather than a static hold.”
1. Forearm self-massage
Dr. Hanson suggests starting by massaging your inner forearm to understand what muscles are involved, while bringing blood flow and nutrients to the tight muscles.
- Relax your forearm onto a table or pillow. Face your palm up and gently rub the muscles of your forearm with the opposite hand for 30 to 60 seconds.
2. Wrist mobility flexion/extension
This move helps mobilize the median nerve and stretch any tight muscles and tissues surrounding it.
- Start with your elbow bent and hand folded over so that your palm faces your inner forearm and shoulder.
- In a fluid motion, extend the wrist (moving your hand in the opposite direction so that the back of your hand points toward the hairy side of the arm) and elbow, slowly straightening the arm until you begin to feel your symptoms, then immediately return to your starting position.
- Complete four to seven times.
3. Median nerve glide
This stretch helps mobilize the median nerve wherever it might be trapped or compressed. “It is important to restore the glide of the nerve to prevent any excess tension as it travels down the arm,” says Dr. Hanson.
- Start with your arm pointed out to the side, parallel to the floor (like half of a T), with your fingers curled up to the sky.
- Lean your head away from your fingers.
- As you extend your wrist and point your fingers to the floor, simultaneously bring your head toward your outstretched arm. Move your hand and head back and forth in a fluid motion.
- Complete four to five times.
4. Active wrist extension
- With your hands in prayer pose, press them together to engage the muscles of the forearm.
- Still pressing your hands, rotate your fingertips toward the floor, then up to the sky.
- Repeat five times.
5. Active wrist flexion
“This motion elongates the wrist extensors while allowing the wrist flexors to move through their available range of motion,” says Dr. Hanson.
- With your elbows bent to 90 degrees, place your hands out in front of you as if you were carrying a platter.
- With your palms facing up, curl your fingers in toward your palm, and then curl your wrist toward your forearm as you bring your wrists toward your shoulders.
- Repeat five times.
6. Wrist circles
- With your fingers straight and wrists bent back, move your wrist in a circle five times in one direction and then five in the other.
- Then, make a fist with your hands and fingers, and circle five more times in each direction.
7. Chest opener
Dr. Hanson notes that opening up the front of the body can release tension in the upper body muscles that surround the median nerve.
- Put a foam roller or rolled-up towel on the floor and lay your spine on top of the length of it with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Reach your fingertips toward the ceiling, feeling a stretch between your shoulder blades.
- Then, separate your hands and bring them towards the floor.
- Repeat five times before allowing your arms to rest on the floor to feel a stretch in your chest.
The best time to stretch
Stretching can be part of an effective rehab program for carpal tunnel syndrome, but it’s even better to be proactive and start stretches as soon as you first notice symptoms. And, you don’t have to wait to feel a niggle to get started: These moves can also help prevent the condition.
“All of these exercises are great to do if you are at a higher risk for developing carpal tunnel syndrome,” says Dr. Hanson. “It is much easier to resolve your symptoms when you start to experience them, rather than allowing them to progress.”
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