Protect your hands and wrists in just a few minutes a day.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is like a Latin-speaking auctioneer: completely misunderstood. It affects about 5 percent of American adults, which means a lot of people are living with numbness, stiffness, and pain in their fingers and hands when they may not have to. But before jumping to solutions, let’s clear up a couple of misconceptions.
First, while symptoms are often felt in the hands or forearms, most carpal tunnel pain doesn’t actually start in these areas, says Julie Peterson, a physical therapist and founder of Concierge Physical Therapy in Edwards, Colorado. “The nerve that runs through the carpal tunnel, or the passageway from the wrist to the hand, originates all the way up in the neck,” Peterson says. “This nerve then passes between muscles on the sides of the neck and on the front of the shoulder.”
Once you understand this, it’s not surprising that poor posture is a major contributor to carpal tunnel pain. “Tension in the neck as well as forward-rounded shoulders can cause compression in the nerve,” Peterson says.
Second, even though it’s associated with heavy keyboard use, carpal tunnel syndrome doesn’t have one clear cause. “Carpal tunnel syndrome is a compression of the median nerve in your wrist, which passes through the tunnel,” says Keith McCarroll, a physical therapist and owner of Ascent Physical Therapy in Eagle, Colorado. “Anything that can take up space in the tunnel—such as swelling or inflammation—can cause compression of that nerve.”
This means that people with smaller wrists—like most women—are more prone to carpal tunnel syndrome, because there’s less room and the nerve can be compressed very easily. Other risk factors include:
- Health conditions that affect the nerves, like diabetes, or contribute to inflammation, like rheumatoid arthritis
- Injury, such as falling on or straining your wrist
- Fluid retention and swelling caused by hormones or some medications
- Sleeping with bent wrists or holding other static positions that create compression in the wrist
- And, yes, high-impact or repetitive work with the hands, such as construction, maintenance, assembly line work, or computer use
How to Relieve Carpal Tunnel Pain
The first step in addressing carpal tunnel pain is determining if it’s carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s also important to rule out whether the symptoms might actually be the result of another condition, McCarroll says. Check with your doctor to get a proper diagnosis.
Once you know your pain is the result of carpal tunnel syndrome, it’s much easier to manage your symptoms—and get back to enjoying your life. Follow these four rules.
1. If It Hurts, Move It
If you’re experiencing carpal tunnel–related pain or tension in the hands, wrists, or forearms, one of the best things you can do for these body parts is to move them, McCarroll says. “Regular movement can help get fluid moving and stretch the nerve,” he says.
These movements can be very simple. You can squeeze and release a tennis or stress ball, rotate the wrists in both directions, or pump your fingers up and down. Perform these exercises for one to two minutes whenever you’re feeling stiff (say, after waking up in the morning) or experiencing a pain flare-up.
2. Never Ignore a Tight Neck
Relieving tension in the neck will help reduce compression on the nerve that runs from the neck down to the carpal tunnel of the wrist, Peterson says. She recommends the following two exercises to improve the neck’s posture and reduce muscle tension.
Chin Tucks Against a Wall: Stand with your back against the wall and your feet about one foot away. Slightly tuck your chin toward your chest while flattening the back of your neck against the wall. Hold this for a count of 10. Release, breathe, and then repeat the exercise five times total. If it feels uncomfortable to stand against the wall, you can perform the same activity lying down on your back.
Lateral Neck Stretch: Stand tall with feet hip-width apart. Gently hold down one of your shoulders with your opposite hand. Tilt your head away from the anchored shoulder until you feel a stretch. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on both sides. If your symptoms are predominantly in your right hand, spend more time holding down your right shoulder and tilting your head to the left. If your symptoms are primarily in your left hand, focus on tilting your head to the right.
3. Open Your Posture
Addressing chronically slumped or hunched shoulders is a very effective way to relieve pressure on the nerve that travels through the carpal tunnel, Peterson says. To improve posture in the shoulders, she suggests doing the corridor stretch every day.
Corridor Stretch: Stand sideways next to a wall that’s half an arm’s length away. With your arm that’s closest to the wall, bend your elbow 90 degrees, and place your elbow and forearm against the wall. Your upper arm should be parallel to the floor. Turn your torso away from the wall. You should feel a stretch in your shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds, and repeat on the other side. Feel free to experiment with raising or lowering your elbow slightly to see where the stretch feels best.
Want more help fixing your posture? Check out this four-step plan.
4. Relearn to Breathe
This might sound odd, but training your body to breathe into your rib cage and chest helps address carpal tunnel symptoms, Peterson says. “The neck muscles that can compress the nerve that exits the carpal tunnel are involved in breathing,” she says. “A vast majority of people become neck breathers—which can contribute to compression on this nerve. Simply lying down and working on breathing wide into the rib cage can help correct this imbalance.”
If possible, practice this breathing exercise for several minutes at least once every day. Lie on your back, and place your hands at the bottom of your rib cage. Take a deep breath in, and feel your rib cage expand. Exhale slowly, and feel your rib cage relax.