I've been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. Would regular hand and wrist exercises help me avoid surgery?
Answer From Peter C. Amadio, M.D.
Probably not. Carpal tunnel exercises alone aren't likely to relieve symptoms, such as pain and numbness. These exercises are most effective when combined with other treatments, such as behavior changes or wrist splints, for mild to moderate carpal tunnel syndrome.
If your symptoms are severe, you'll likely still need surgery to get relief.
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. Nerve-gliding exercises — one type of carpal tunnel exercise — might help the median nerve move normally, but might worsen symptoms. If a median nerve remains trapped, nerve-gliding exercises can stretch, irritate or injure the nerve.
Despite their limitations, carpal tunnel exercises might help:
- Complement another treatment. Carpal tunnel exercises might help mild to moderate symptoms when combined with other treatments, such as changing your activities, wrist splinting or corticosteroid injections.
- After surgery to prevent nerve scarring. Range-of-motion exercises — which may include nerve-gliding exercises — might help heal significant trauma to the wrist, such as a wrist fracture that requires surgery or repair near the carpal tunnel.
- Delay the need for surgery. Some research has shown that a combination of wearing a splint, education about carpal tunnel syndrome and home exercises may delay the need for surgery. And people who followed this combination program, which was led by a therapist, also noted that they had fewer symptoms and had improved satisfaction.
If your doctor recommends carpal tunnel exercises, start them gradually. It's also a good idea to work with a hand therapist. The therapist can show you the right way to do these exercises so that you don't make your symptoms worse.
Peter C. Amadio, M.D.
June 14, 2022
- Ballestero-Perez R, et al. Effectiveness of nerve-gliding exercises on carpal tunnel syndrome: A systematic review. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. 2017; doi:10.1016/j.jmpt.2016.10.004.
- Kothari MJ. Carpal tunnel syndrome: Treatment and prognosis. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed May 5, 2022.
- Lewis KJ, et al. Group education, night splinting and home exercises reduce conversion to surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome: A multicentre randomized trial. Journal of Physiotherapy. 2020; doi:10.1016/j.jphys.2020.03.007.
- Sim SE, et al. Short-term clinical outcome of orthosis alone vs combination of orthosis, nerve, and tendon gliding therapy for treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome. Journal of Hand Therapy. 2019; doi.org/10.1016/j.jht.2018.01.004.
- Amadio PC (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic. May 16, 2022.