Carpal tunnel syndrome affects millions of Americans each year, yet experts aren’t entirely sure what causes it. A combination of lifestyle and genetic factors are likely to blame. However, the risk factors are so diverse that nearly everybody has one or more of them at some point in their lives.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause numbness, stiffness, and pain in the fingers and hand. There is no known way to prevent carpal tunnel, but some exercises can lower your chances of needing surgery. We spoke to John DiBlasio, MPT, DPT, CSCS, a Vermont-based physical therapist, for exercise suggestions.
Here are three basic moves you can do any time of day. These stretches and exercises are simple and don’t require any equipment. You can easily do them at your desk, while waiting in line, or whenever you have a minute or two to spare. “Problems like carpal tunnel are best addressed … with stretches done throughout the day,” says Dr. DiBlasio. Protect your wrists in just a few minutes a day with these easy movements.
Remember that nursery rhyme from when you were a kid? Turns out it’s a great stretch for your hands:
- Start with your hands together in prayer position.
- Spread fingers apart as far you can, then “steeple” the fingers by separating palms of hands, but keeping fingers together.
“This stretches the palmar fascia, carpal tunnel structures, and median nerve, the nerve that gets irritated in a carpal tunnel syndrome,” says DiBlasio. This one is so simple even your officemates won't notice you doing it, so you don’t have any excuses for not trying it.
This is as straightforward as it sounds: shake hands like you’ve just washed them and are trying to air dry them.
“Do this for a minute or two every hour to keep flexor muscles of your hands and its median nerve from getting cramped and tight during the day,” he advises. If that sounds like a lot, you could even integrate this into your hand washing routine. You are washing your hands frequently, right? If not, use your carpal tunnel treatment as another reason to lather up more often and keep the flu at bay!
This last exercise is the deepest stretch of the set:
- Place one arm straight out in front of you, elbow straight, with your wrist extended and fingers facing the floor.
- Spread your fingers slightly and use your other hand to apply gentle pressure to the downward-facing hand, stretching your wrist and fingers as far as you’re able.
- When you reach your maximum point of flexibility, hold this position for about 20 seconds.
- Switch hands and repeat.
Do this two to three times on each side, and try to do this stretch every hour. After a few weeks of doing this multiple times a day, you’ll notice significant improvement in your wrist’s flexibility.
Remember that stretching is an important part of any healthy routine; don’t limit your regimen to the exercises on this list. Every part of your body can benefit from the increased circulation, movement, and mobility that stretching can help provide.
Call your doctor if you think you’re experiencing carpal tunnel. Prompt treatment may help you relieve symptoms and keep the syndrome for getting worse. The exercises mentioned above should only be part of your treatment plan. Other treatments for carpal tunnel include:
- applying cold packs
- taking frequent breaks
- splinting your wrist at night
- corticosteroid injections
Your doctor may recommend surgery if these treatments don’t improve your symptoms.