Five years ago, I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. It started off with occasional tingling sensations in the hands (especially in the pinkies and ring finger). Then I started having trigger thumb in the morning. This is when I would wake up with my thumb flexed and it would hurt to extend it. Then one night, working for a couple of hours straight on the computer, I woke up unable to make a fist. Lifting my hands in “typing” position hurt. I could barely grip door knobs or cabinet pulls. I had constant pain from the fingertips, to the base of the palm and all the way to the elbow. Although I had carpal tunnel on both hands, the right was more severe than the left.
It took about a year to do everyday tasks without having to stop every hour to massage my forearms and hand. And although it no longer hurts, I still give myself breaks from typing on the computer. When the Apple Watch notifies me to get in my hourly stand, that’s when I usually stretch out my hands and forearms.
What is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition that causes numbness, tingling, and pain in the hand and forearm. The condition occurs when one of the major nerves to the hand — the median nerve — is squeezed or compressed as it travels through the wrist.
American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons
I’m lucky that my condition wasn’t severe enough to require surgery. Through exercise, massage, and stretches, I alleviate the pain from carpal tunnel and increase the flexibility and strength in my wrists and forearms. If you have carpal tunnel syndrome or experiencing symptoms, I hope this article will help you recover more efficiently and fully.
I start with exploring the methods that worked (exercises, self-massage, massage from a masseuse, massage gun, and yoga), and what I would skip (physical therapy).
Note that I’m not a physical therapist or a doctor. Always consult with your physician.
Massage (self massage, masseuse, and equipment)
Self-massage: Use the elbow to give yourself a targeted pressure point massage. One of my favorite one to do is I place my right hand and forearm on the left thigh to keep it stable. Next, I take my left elbow and press against my right forearm, palm, or any point that needs targeted pressure. I do both sides. Using the elbow means I don’t have to use my hand to apply pressure.
Theragun works. I had an older and inexpensive massager, but I needed more pressure. Theragun can be pricey but worth it. If you have a Health Savings Account (HSA) account check if they let you purchase a massage gun.
I booked weekly 60-minute massage just for my hands, arms, and shoulders. Instead of spending money on physical therapy, getting massages was 100% worth it. Luckily, my insurance covered it, so check if your insurance has the same plan..
Exercises (with equipments and without)
WebMD has an extensive list of stretches for carpal tunnel, so I won’t repeat here. But the following, inspired by yoga warmups, helped.
Prayer: Start in prayer with palms pressed together, fingers point to the sky. The hands are in line with the breastbone with the elbows splayed out as much as you can. This means that the forearms form a straight line from one elbow to another. Fingers can be spread wide apart or touching–check which one gives you the stretch you need. Fingers together tend to be more intense. Keep pressing the palms together and push the hands down until the hands go lower in line with the navel. The base of the hands might start moving away from each other and that’s OK. But make sure to keep the fingers pointing up. Keep the shoulders back and maintain a straight spine. This movement will stretch the fingers, hands, and forearms.
Tabletop with 4 wrist stretches: Start with hands and knees on the mat. Spread the palms as wide as you can with the hands shoulder-width apart. Ideally you want the middle fingers facing forward but the hands can be slightly splayed out if that feels better on the wrist.
- Draw circles with the upper body. Star with small circles and increase the size as you see fit. This will allow you to test how far your wrists can extend forward and to the sides. Try straightening the arms as much as you can with the elbows facing back. Make the circles clockwise and counter clockwise 5x each side.
- Move the weight forward. Eventually, shoulders will go over the wrist. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds.
- Flip the hands so the palms are on the floor, but the fingers now face you. Gently move the weight back keeping the base of the palm on the ground. Work towards straightening the arms. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds.
- Last, take the top of the hands to the floor. The palms pointing up. Move the weight forward and back slowly. Move mindfully for 10 seconds and pause in areas that feel you need more attention.
Strap: Take a yoga strap or a towel. With the hands wider than shoulder-width apart, extend the arms in front of you. Inhale and take the strap overhead and all the way down to the lower back. Reserve the motion until the strap is back to the starting position. This is often referred to as shoulder flossing. When rotating the arms, keep the elbows straight. If you find the elbow bending, this means that the hands are too narrow. Move the hands farther away from each other as you hold the strap. Repeat 5 times.
Wall: Extend your right arm to the side next to a wall. With the arm extended place the palm on the wall, keeping the whole palm on the wall. Spread out the fingers and on an exhale move the upper body to the left. The hand and arm remain in place. Hold for 10-15 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Dumbbells: With limited grip strength, it might be impossible to use dumbbells. I had to work my way to getting back my grip before I was able to use the full potential of weights. But once I was able to, here are the 2 ways dumbbells helped:
- Hold a dumbbell on one hand with the arms straight down. The added weight creates an extension for the whole arm. If you’re holding the weight on the right hand, your body will want to go to the right, keep the spine straight. This is a passive and intense stretch. I used 10 lbs. If you have the grip, this has the same effect as hanging from a chin-up bar with the arms straight.
- Wrist curls: Sit in a comfortable position. Hold a lightweight dumbbell in each hand, no more than 5 lbs. for me. With the palms facing up, place your forearms on your thighs, with the writs tangling over the knee. Curl the wrist up and slowly let it dangle down. 10x each side. Repeat the same exercise but this time with the palms facing down. This position is harder and do 5x each. It’s important to keep the forearms stable as they rest on your thighs. If doing both at the same time feels awkward, try the same exercise but instead of the wrist dangling over the knees, have a knee dangle from the inner thigh. This means that when seating, the thighs are slightly apart. As always, maintain a strong back. The hands should do the work and not the back.
After my diagnosis, the doctor referred me to a physical therapy center. After running their own diagnosis including measuring mobility, the physical therapist (PT) assistant printed out an article online and gave it to me. They left as I did the exercises from the printout. They recommended going twice a week. I didn’t. Although some of the exercises helped, I could do them at home. Honestly, I could have googled and got the same exercises they recommended.
A note: The physical therapist recommended a flex bar and putty to strengthen grip. These did not work for me and made the thumb pain worse.
I’m not against physical therapy. It’s possible that the PT center I went to didn’t handle my case well. But it felt like a waste of time and money. Buying a massager and getting massages gave me better returns.
Splint: I used a splint when typing on a keyboard. I wore one for a few months after my diagnosis. It helped when I had severe pain.
Gloves: Keeping my hands warm at home helps. So if I’m just reading and do not need to use the keyboard, I would put gloves on during the colder season.
Getting carpal tunnel made me incorporate daily habits that take care of my fingers, hands, and arms. I realized that desktops are more likely to aggravate symptoms so I only use laptops or tablets for work. I take breaks when typing and still do the exercises and massages I mention here.
Working on wrist flexibility and strength led me to have a stronger handstand. I do the 4 wrist exercises on the mat before I practice yoga without fail. I’m able to play tennis and guitar. And yes, I can type without pain.
Tell me about your experience with carpal tunnel: Have you experienced carpal tunnel syndrome? What did you do to relieve the pain? Let me know at email@example.com. I may use your contribution in a future article or newsletter.