I've been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. Would regular hand and wrist exercises help me avoid surgery?
Answers from Peter C. Amadio, M.D.
Probably not. When used alone, carpal tunnel exercises aren't likely to relieve symptoms, such as pain and numbness. And they don't replace other carpal tunnel treatments, such as surgery, behavior modification or wrist splints.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by compression of the median nerve as it passes through the carpal tunnel and under the transverse carpal ligament at the wrist. A number of factors can contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome, including wrist anatomy, underlying health problems and patterns of hand use.
Nerve-gliding exercises — one type of carpal tunnel exercise — are meant to help the median nerve move normally, but they can sometimes worsen symptoms. If a median nerve remains trapped, nerve-gliding exercises can stretch, irritate or injure the nerve.
Despite their limitations, carpal tunnel exercises may be helpful in some situations:
- To complement another treatment option. Carpal tunnel exercises may be helpful for mild to moderate symptoms when combined with other treatments, such as activity modification, wrist splinting or corticosteroid injections.
- After surgery to prevent the nerve from becoming scarred in the incision area. Range-of-motion exercises — which may include nerve-gliding exercises — can be helpful when there has been significant trauma to the area, such as a fracture that requires wrist surgery or repair near the carpal tunnel.
If your doctor recommends carpal tunnel exercises, start them gradually to ensure they don't cause more harm than good.
June 04, 2014
Peter C. Amadio, M.D.
See more Expert Answers
- Ono S, et al. Optimal management of carpal tunnel syndrome. International Journal of General Medicine. 2010;3:255.
- Kothari MJ. Treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed March 26, 2014.
- Horng Y-S, et al. The comparative effectiveness of tendon and nerve gliding exercises in patients with carpal tunnel syndrome. American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. 2011;90:435.
- Huisstede BM, et al. Carpal tunnel syndrome. Part I: Effectiveness of nonsurgical treatments — A systematic review. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2010;91:981.
- Amadio PC (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. April 7, 2014.
- Baker NA, et al. The comparative effectiveness of combined lumbrical muscle splints and stretches on symptoms and function in carpal tunnel syndrome. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2012;93:1.