Best Exercises for Carpal Tunnel

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on January 08, 2023

Carpal tunnel syndrome causes uncomfortable tingling, numbing, and weakness in the wrists and hands. Too much compression of the median nerve in the wrists causes this syndrome.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is more common among women than men. The reasons for that aren’t clear. It can happen during pregnancy, and in those cases, it usually goes away after the pregnancy. 

Some medical conditions, including diabetes, obesity, and rheumatoid arthritis, may make carpal tunnel syndrome more likely. 

Certain exercises may help people with minor to moderate cases improve their symptoms and avoid carpal tunnel surgery. These exercises have the strongest effect when you also get other nonsurgical treatment options, like changing the action that led to the syndrome or wearing wrist splints. Carpal tunnel exercises are also sometimes recommended after carpal tunnel surgery to prevent internal scarring.

These exercises may not be easy at first, but they shouldn’t be painful. If they hurt, back off or stop completely and let your health care provider know. If you're unsure about whether to do these exercises, ask your doctor.

1. Wrist Rotations

Rotate your wrists by moving only your hands up, down, left, and right. Repeat up to four times.

2. Finger Stretch

Stretch your fingers wide and then relax them, and repeat up to four times.

3. Thumb Stretch

Using your opposite hand, push your thumb backward until you feel a gentle stretch. Repeat up to four times.

4. Prayer Stretch

  • Put your hands together under your chin in a prayer position.
  • Push your hands down to your waist until you feel a moderate stretch. Hold for up to 30 seconds. Repeat between two and four times.

5. Wrist Flexor Stretch

Some experts recommend doing this stretch a few times each day. You may want to do it before any activity that tends to make your carpal tunnel symptoms worse.

  • Hold your hand out in front of you, with the palm face-up.
  • Bend your hand back towards the floor, stretching the palm side of the wrist.
  • Use your other hand to bend your hand back even more, deepening the stretch. Hold for up to 30 seconds. Repeat on each hand between two and four times.

6. Wrist Extensor Stretch

Experts also recommend doing this exercise a few times each day, especially before activities that tend to worsen your carpal tunnel syndrome.

  • Hold your hand out in front of you, with the palm face down.
  • Bend your hand forward towards the floor, stretching the back of the wrist.
  • Use the other hand to bend your hand forward even more, intensifying the stretch, and hold for up to 30 seconds. Repeat on each hand between two and four times.

7. Medial Nerve Glide

You may want to use mild heat for 15 minutes before this stretch. After, use an ice pack for 20 minutes. This will help prevent swelling. Hold each step of this exercise for between 3 and 7 seconds.

  • Make a fist.
  • Extend your fingers, keeping your thumb close to your fingers. 
  • Bend your hand backwards, towards your arm.
  • Keeping your hand in that position, extend your thumb away from your fingers. 
  • Turn your forearm so your hand is palm up.
  • Use your other hand to pull your thumb back, deepening the stretch. Repeat 10-15 times per day.

8. Tendon Glides: Type One

You may want to use mild heat for 15 minutes before this exercise, and ice or cold for 20 minutes after. Hold each of these poses for 3 seconds.

  • Hold your hand up in front of you, straightening all fingers.
  • Curl your fingers with your knuckles pointing up. Your fingers will be in a hook shape.
  • Curl your fingers further, making a tight fist. Do this five to 10 times. Repeat a few times each day.

9. Tendon Glides: Type Two

Use heat on your wrist and hand for 15 minutes before doing this one as well. Ice it for 20 minutes after. Hold each position for 3 seconds.

  • Hold your hand up in front of you, straightening all your fingers.
  • Make your hand into a tabletop by bending your fingers at a 90-degree angle.
  • Continue bending your fingers, bringing your fingertips to the bottom of the palm.

10. Shake It Out

This simple exercise is especially useful at night, when your symptoms can be worse. If you wake up with pain or numbness, shake your hands out to get some relief.

11. Fist to Stop Sign

  • Make a fist.
  • Slide your fingers up until they point toward the ceiling, like you're telling someone to stop.
  • Repeat five to 10 times.

12. Thumb Touches

  • One at a time, touch the tip of each finger to the tip of your thumb so they make an O-shape.
  • Repeat a few times.

13. Basic Wrist Stretches

  • Sit down at a table.
  • Rest your elbow and arm on the table and let your wrist hang over the side, palm of your hand facing up.
  • Start with your hand in a straight, neutral position.
  • Bend your hand toward you so your fingers point up toward the ceiling.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Return to a straight, neutral position.
  • Bend your hand away from you so your fingers point down toward the floor.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Return to a straight, neutral position.
  • Repeat 10 times.
  • Do this up to three times a day.

14. Wrist Resistance

  • Sit down at a table.
  • Rest your forearm, wrist, and hand on the table, with your palm facing down. Use the hand and wrist affected by carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Lay your other hand across the knuckles at a 90-degree angle, so your hands make a plus sign.
  • Lift your bottom hand up but resist with your top one. You'll feel this in the muscles of your forearm.
  • Repeat a few times a day.

15. Wrist Curls

  • Sit or stand for this one.
  • Get a 1-pound weight or a can of beans.
  • With your elbows at your side, lift your forearm so your arm makes an L-shape. Your forearm should be parallel to the floor.
  • Start with your wrist straight and neutral, palm with the weight facing down.
  • Bend your wrist up.
  • Return to a straight, neutral position.
  • Repeat 10 times.
  • Do this up to three times a day.

16. Hand Grip Exercises

  • Squeeze a pair of balled-up socks or a soft rubber ball.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 10 times.
  • Do this up to three times a day.

A gentle pulling feeling is OK, but you should not feel any sharp pain when performing these exercises. If you do feel a sharp pain, stop doing that exercise immediately and contact your doctor or physical therapist.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: "Carpal tunnel syndrome,” "Carpal tunnel exercises: Can they relieve symptoms?"

American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: "Therapeutic Exercise Program for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome."

My Health Alberta: "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Exercises." 

PubMed: "Exercise and mobilisation interventions for carpal tunnel syndrome," "The comparative effectiveness of combined lumbrical muscle splints and stretches on symptoms and function in carpal tunnel syndrome."

U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Efficacy of tendon and nerve gliding exercises for carpal tunnel syndrome: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials."

Arthritis Research UK: "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome."

National Health Service, University Hospital Southampton: "Carpal tunnel syndrome during pregnancy."

National Health Service, Oxford University Hospitals: "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome."

Eastern Washington University: "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome."

Arthritis Foundation: "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Relief."

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