Carpal tunnel syndrome is a compression of the median nerve in the wrist, which can cause pain and numbness in the hand. Certain hand exercises can help relieve pressure on the median nerve and alleviate symptoms.

In this article, we look at some of the best hand exercises for carpal tunnel.

Alongside other treatment methods, people may find these exercises helpful in relieving symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.

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The carpal tunnel is a passage between the wrist and the hand that contains tendons, ligament, blood vessels, nerves, and bones.

The median nerve runs through this passage, from the forearm to the hand. The median nerve provides sensation to some of the fingers, including the thumb.

Excessive pressure to the wrist can compress the median nerve. This may happen as a result of a wrist injury, repetitive movements, or rheumatoid arthritis.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, people with diabetes have a higher risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, and females are three times more likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome than males.

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome can include:

  • numbness or tingling sensation in the fingers, particularly the index, middle, and ring fingers and the thumb
  • symptoms occurring or worsening at night
  • weakness in the hand leading to the loss of grip strength, making holding objects or carrying out everyday tasks more difficult
  • in severe cases, inability to feel hot or cold temperatures with the hand

There are a number of exercises and stretches a person can try to help relieve the symptoms of carpal tunnel.

People may feel a gentle pull or stretch during the following exercises. However, they should stop if they experience any pain.

1. Wrist extension

This exercise stretches the muscles in the inner forearm:

  1. Hold one arm straight out in front of the body at shoulder height.
  2. Try not to lock the elbow when stretching the arm out.
  3. Bend the wrist back, as if making a “stop” sign.
  4. Use the other hand to gently pull the palm back toward the body to feel a stretch in the inner forearm.
  5. Hold for 15 seconds.
  6. Release and repeat five times.
  7. Repeat the whole exercise on the other arm.

People can do this sequence four times per day, 5–7 days per week. This also works well as a warm-up stretch before activity, especially one that involves gripping.

2. Wrist flexion

This exercise stretches the muscles in the outer forearm:

  1. Extend one arm in front of the body at shoulder height.
  2. Try not to lock the elbow when stretching the arm out.
  3. With the palm facing down, bend the wrist so the fingers point toward the floor.
  4. Using the other hand, gently pull the bent hand toward the body to feel a stretch in the outer forearm.
  5. Hold for 15 seconds.
  6. Release and repeat five times
  7. Repeat the whole exercise on the other arm.

People can do this sequence four times per day, 5–7 days per week. One can also use it as a warm-up stretch before activity, especially any exercise that involves gripping.

3. Median nerve glide

A glide is a stretching exercise to help relieve pressure on a compressed nerve, such as the median nerve.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommend people apply a warm compress to the hand for 15 minutes before doing this stretch.

  1. Make a fist with one hand, keeping the thumb on the outside.
  2. Uncurl the fingers, stretching the fingers and thumb out straight and then keeping the thumb pressed to the side of the hand.
  3. Gently bend the hand back toward the forearm, then extend the thumb out to the side.
  4. Using the opposite hand, apply gentle pressure on the thumb to stretch it.
  5. For each change of position, hold for 3–7 seconds.
  6. Release and repeat the whole exercise on the other hand.

People can repeat this exercise 10–15 times per day, 6–7 days per week.

Holding a cold compress, such as ice or a bag of frozen peas, on the hand for 20 minutes after the exercise may help prevent inflammation.

4. Tendon glides

This exercise gently stretches the tendons in the carpal tunnel. Some research shows that using a splint alongside tendon and doing nerve gliding exercises improved carpal tunnel syndrome more than using a splint alone.

People may want to apply a warm compress for 15 minutes before carrying out these exercises and a cold compress afterward for 20 minutes to avoid inflammation.

People can do these exercises on both hands at the same time or alternate between each hand:

  1. Bend the elbow so the forearm points straight up.
  2. Straighten the fingers and thumb out in line with the wrist so all fingers are pointing straight up.
  3. Bend the top of the fingers to make a hook shape.
  4. Then bend the fingers into a tight fist, with the thumb on top of the fingers.
  5. Hold each of these positions for 3 seconds.

People can also try the following, which is a similar tendon glide exercise:

  1. Straighten the fingers and thumb out in line with the wrist so all fingers are pointing straight up.
  2. Bend the fingers from the bottom knuckles, pointing them straight out at a right angle.
  3. Bend the fingers from the middle knuckles so that the fingertips touch the palm.
  4. Hold each of these positions for 3 seconds.

Repeat these exercises 5-10 times two to three times per day, for as many days of the week as feels comfortable.

5. Wrist lift

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This exercise works the muscles of the forearm:

  1. Place one palm flat on a table.
  2. Place the other hand directly at right angles across the knuckles.
  3. Lift the fingers of the bottom hand while pressing down with the top hand.
  4. Repeat with the opposite hand.

6. Hand squeeze

This exercise works the forearm muscles. People will need a soft rubber ball for this exercise or a pair of rolled up socks.

  1. Hold the ball in one hand.
  2. Squeeze for 5 seconds and release.
  3. Repeat 10 times.
  4. Do three sets of repetitions and then swap to the other hand.

7. Wrist stretch with weights

This exercise stretches the flexor muscles in the forearm. People will need a light weight for this exercise, such as a can of beans. If it feels comfortable, people can gradually increase to slightly heavier weights.

  1. Hold the weight in the hand and extend the arm straight in front, with the palm facing down.
  2. Slowly bring the hand up and back toward the arm, bending at the wrist.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat 10 times for three sets.
  5. Swap to the other hand and repeat.

Doctors can usually treat carpal tunnel fairly easily. People may find that consistently practicing the above exercises for 6–8 weeks helps relieve symptoms.

If hand exercises are not effective in easing symptoms, wearing a splint when symptoms worsen, such as at night, may help.

In some cases, people may need a steroid injection into the wrist to provide longer-lasting relief.

If an underlying condition is causing carpal tunnel syndrome, such as diabetes or arthritis, treating or managing the condition may help.

Hand exercises may help alleviate mild symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome or help prevent it from developing from repetitive, everyday movements.

If people have persistent symptoms of carpal tunnel, they may want to seek guidance from a doctor.

A doctor may advise other treatments alongside physical therapy.