After carpal tunnel surgery, people can use the affected hand with minimal risk as long as the surgical incision has healed. Using the hand may cause soreness but will not cause long-term complications.
This guidance comes from the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH).
Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) occurs due to the compression of the median nerve, which spans the length of the arm and goes through the wrist. Surgery relieves the pain by releasing pressure in the wrist.
In most cases, surgery is successful. However, 3–25% of people will have recurring or persistent symptoms.
This may occur for several reasons, such as scar tissue development, delays in treatment, or incorrect technique during the procedure. It does not happen due to overuse after surgery.
In this article, we will discuss the effect of overdoing certain activities following carpal tunnel surgery and what to avoid after surgery.
Overusing the hand or arm after carpal tunnel surgery does not pose a risk of serious or long-term complications, according to the ASSH. As long as the surgical incision has healed, people can still keep using the affected hand while they recover.
If a person has strained their hand, they may feel some soreness. This is typical and does not mean that they have caused a serious injury.
However, doctors generally recommend that people avoid certain strenuous activities for a few weeks after surgery. This gives the area a chance to start healing.
Overusing the hand after carpal tunnel surgery will not cause long-term damage, but people may notice soreness or a form of pain known as pillar pain.
Pillar pain is a common side effect of carpal tunnel surgery. It affects the base of the palm, causing tenderness in the heel of the hand. The condition is temporary and usually does not last longer than 3 months, per the ASSH. Occasionally, it can last from 6–12 months.
Some swelling, numbness, tingling, and reduced strength in the hand are also typical while the area heals. This does not necessarily mean a person has injured their hand.
A potential risk that can affect anyone after this surgery is returning CTS symptoms. It is not always clear why CTS returns in some people, but a 2021 study suggests the cause is often incorrect surgical technique. Sometimes, scar tissue formation may also press on the median nerve.
If CTS symptoms do recur, they may include:
- tingling, numbness, and pain in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and ring finer
- pain that travels up to the shoulder
- shock-like sensations in the fingers
- weakness in the hand
If a person is worried they have overused their hand or wrist, they should stop the activity that is causing soreness or pain. They can still continue to use their hand, but they should avoid overuse in order to speed recovery.
If a person has pillar pain, a doctor may suggest hand stretches or massage to reduce the symptoms. They may also administer steroid injections to prevent scar tissue from forming.
If a person’s CTS symptoms return, they may need revision surgery. Doctors recommend revision surgery when the first surgery did not work.
Sometimes, pain around the incision site is a sign of infection. If a person has inflamed skin, swelling, pus, or fever, they should contact a doctor as soon as possible.
After surgery for CTS, people are advised to limit hand movement while the incision heals. Light hand activity is unlikely to cause problems, but it may be uncomfortable. Try to avoid movements that cause significant pain.
During recovery, people also need to avoid activities that strain the arms and hands or involve gripping or pinching. This includes:
- doing heavy lifting
- performing intense exercises involving the arms, such as push-ups
- participating in certain sports, such as rock climbing or cycling
- operating heavy machinery
People can often start driving and doing lighter lifting or gripping several weeks after surgery. A doctor can advise on when this is safe to do.
While the surgical incision heals, a person should also avoid getting the skin dirty or submerging the hand in water. This means a person cannot go swimming or play water sports. They also should not submerge their hand while washing or bathing. Keep the wound clean and dry by following the aftercare instructions from a doctor.
Recovery from carpal tunnel surgery is gradual. Complete recovery might take 1 year. How long a person needs to take time away from work will depend on their occupation.
- 0–30 days for desk-based work
- 1–56 days for light repetitive manual work
- 1–90 days for heavy manual work
To aid recovery after carpal tunnel surgery, doctors may recommend:
If a person has used their hand too much while their surgical incision is still healing, they should speak with a doctor. They should also get medical advice if the incision has healed, but they have persistent or severe soreness lasting longer than 2 months.
People with pillar pain may wish to look into therapies for reducing the pain, such as massage or physiotherapy.
Overusing the hand after carpal tunnel surgery may cause pain, but it will not cause long-term damage to the median nerve. If a person does experience pain, they should avoid the activity that caused it until it gets better, using the hand for only light activity that a doctor has approved.
If the pain does not go away, a person may have pillar pain or another complication that requires medical treatment. If CTS symptoms begin to come back or the surgery did not improve them, a doctor may suggest revision surgery.
People should avoid heavy lifting, strenuous exercise involving the arms, and activities that involve gripping or pinching for several weeks after surgery to aid recovery. A person may also need extended time off work.