Can exercises help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome?

Should you be doing strengthening and stretching exercises to avoid this painful condition? No, say experts.

19 May 2016
by Stefan de Clerk

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a fairly common hand and wrist condition that can affect anyone in any kind of work environment. However, women are more likely to develop CTS than men are, as well as those of us who are in jobs that require repetitive hand movements, such as manufacturing, sewing or fishing. Its other risk factors include hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.

Why exercises can’t prevent CTS

There are many treatments for CTS such as adjusting how you exercise or work on your computer, medication, and using a splint to ensure correct alignment of your wrist. 

Then there are those advocates who encourage stretching and strengthening exercises to prevent developing CTS. These exercises, regularly listed online on health websites, include rolling your wrists with clenched fists, shaking your hands as if you’re shaking off water, or stretching them by pulling your hand towards you while your arm is parallel to the ground. 

While this is well-meaning advice, exercises can’t actually prevent this condition, says Bloemfontein-based physiotherapist Petrusa Gerdener. “In fact, if you have an advanced stage of CTS, exercises can actually make the symptoms worse,” she says. “Sadly, no exercises can prevent CTS, because there is nothing that can really prevent the thickening of your tendons or the pinching of your median nerve, and while treatments like wearing a splint or taking medication may alleviate its symptoms, it’s often only temporary, and in many cases the only way to actually remedy the condition is through surgery.”

Should you do exercises after surgery?

Should you be forced to turn to surgery as a solution, it doesn’t mean you’re free from carpal tunnel syndrome forever, as it is possible to develop it again. After surgery there are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of developing it again, including:

  • When you’re lying in bed, lie on your side with your top arm straight and your hand resting on your outer thigh. Your other arm should be slightly bent and resting on your pillow.
  • When you’re sitting at your desk be careful not to rest on your elbows too much.
  • Relaxing in a nice comfy armchair is great; just be careful not to rest your arms on the armrest for too long.

While it will be necessary to rehabilitate your wrists after surgery, exercises should be avoided, especially due to the sensitive nature of the surgery. This rehabilitation should be done under the guidance of a qualified physiotherapist.

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