Solutions For Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Our bodies are designed to gracefully move through the wide range of motions that have kept our species alive for so long, but today’s screen-based lifestyle gives us more opportunity than ever to constrict our movement. We are forced to strain the eyes by using our near-vision much more than our far-vision, we’re crammed into tight desks for long hours, and we move too little overall. Without motion, our body stagnates, and chronic illnesses like back pain, headaches and carpal tunnel syndrome are much more likely to develop. We need to make conscious lifestyle choices about how we move and how often to keep pain, stiffness, and tension at bay.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, or CTS, is caused by too much pressure being put on the median nerve, which runs through a tunnel from your forearm through the wrist, and provides sensation to the hand. When swelling or tension causes a constriction in the carpal tunnel, it begins to injure the median nerve housed there. Gradually, tingling, pain, swelling, and ultimately, debilitation result. Repetitively using the tendons and ligaments causes tension and damage over time.
Prevention for CTS is really no different than preventing other diseases of the joints caused or worsened by lack of movement or improper posture. Our bodies should be moving, and the more we do so in a relaxed, conscious way that utilizes our joints’ full range of motion, the better our joints are able to lubricate and repair themselves. This keeps pressure off our nerves naturally.
Office workers especially sit in the same places in the same postures doing the same things every day. Factory workers may operate heavy machinery that vibrates the wrists, and musicians often use unnatural movements over and over again. All of these situations increase the risk of developing CTS. The ultimate goal is to break up programmed routines of poor posture and rigid movement that creates or worsens CTS, as well as other joint disease like osteoarthritis. To do that, we need three basic steps.
Three Steps to Help Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is often thought of as a repetitive motion injury, but I think of it as a repetitive misuse disorder. CTS and other repetitive misuse injuries are exacerbated, if not completely caused, by using our bodies repeatedly in an unnatural way, often with great tension and little awareness. We develop patterns in our movements and use only a small number of muscles to perform all our tasks. Our necks suffer, our back and hips suffer, and of course so do the hands and wrists.
Step 1: Becoming Aware
Simply taking time to get to know your body, stretch your muscles and rotate your joints, and enjoy deep, full breathing greatly increases your level of kinesthesia. Natural, comfortable postures and the charisma and grace that come with effortless movement are a side effect of bodily awareness.
Set aside a time set aside each day to stop and focus on your body. Breathe deeply and gently, move in natural, comfortable ways, gently stretching the muscles with simple movements like soft neck rotations, hip circles, ankle rolls, and wrist rotations. Incorporate stretches you know and like, or yoga poses you enjoy or would like to do more often, or perform exercises related to any aches and pains you may have. Make it a light, cheerful time before bed or after you wake or whenever you can. If you have five minutes, use five minutes, and if you have an hour, use that if you wish. The effects truly are enormous.
Use this time of the day as an anchor for your awareness. By loosening the body and relaxing the mind, you become more able to notice tension throughout the day and take immediate corrective action. The corrective action is always to pause, relax, and realign to a softer, more natural position.
Step 2: Self Care Through the Day
Keeping the body, and wrists especially, in varying degrees of duress through the whole day simply cannot be undone by a few minutes exercise at night. Make it a habit to stop and shake out the tension in your body by performing simple, quick stretches and movements to counteract the contraction caused by your posture.
Self-care throughout the day, spontaneous and planned, is the next most important aspect to preventing or potentially stopping the progression of CTS. If your job has you at a desk typing, bending over tables, or performing otherwise repetitive, constrictive actions, it’s of great significance that you stop at least once an hour, preferably twice or more, to perform gentle stretches and bring your body awareness back home.
Start by taking time every half hour or so to check in with yourself and make a conscious decision to relax away some tension; this will take effort. It may help to set a timer as a gentle reminder. Stand up, take a small walk (or a long one when you can), stretch your arms up over your head, bend gently forward and backward. Make it natural, and move consciously while breathing deeply. Never tug on tight muscles, but gently feel the tightness and imagine the muscle coming loose, or that blood is flowing there. You are not trying to literally stretch the muscle out; instead, you are encouraging the muscle to let go. This approach is more effective and much less likely to cause injury to parts of your anatomy that you may have stopped fully utilizing.
Step 3: Targeted Maintenance
Besides developing more general awareness to support body function overall, people at high risk for CTS should also pay some special attention to their necks, shoulders, arms, and hands. A few simple exercises done throughout the day can help to improve circulation and release pressure on the median nerve. You needn’t do all of them at first or each time you take a moment to stretch out, but gradually include them into your regimen. When you feel pain, ease off the exercise and return later. Awareness is the key.
WRIST CIRCLES Rotate the wrists in both directions. Do so slowly, with great awareness in your hands and forearms. Imagine the movement coming from the tips of the fingers, and as always, breathe fully and gently. Imagine the breath running smoothly down the arm into the hands, relaxing any tension you feel along the way. Aim for 100 rotations a day, but start where you’re comfortable.
WRIST FLEXION Hold your arms out and flex the wrist forward and backward. Feel the motion in your wrists, and imagine that your forearms and wrists feel expansive and soft. Gently deepen the stretch by helping one hand with the other, but be careful not to strain.
SIMPLE SHAKING Gently shake the hands out, allowing the wrists to be totally limp, and imagine breathing breathe into your hands as you do. This improves circulation and is a sort of shotgun approach for releasing tension.
WRIST GLIDES Sitting or standing, hold your hands up in front of you, so that the palm is facing you. The wrist should be neutral, sitting naturally on top your forearm with the fingers in the air. Gently rotate your forearms so that your palms face away from you, breathing into your hands through the shoulders, down the arm and through the wrist. Imagine the motion coming from the tips of your thumbs, and feel how elegantly your bones and tendons slide over one another in the wrist.
FINGER FLEXIONS Holding your wrist in a neutral position, gently close your hand into a fist, and open it again as wide as you can. Feel the muscles in your forearms contract as you do so, and breathe into your hands. Move one finger at a time, and rotate each finger one at a time. Feel free to allow one hand to assist the other. Really explore your hands and move them with as much awareness and interest as possible. Feel how this wide range of motion affects the wrists.
GENERAL STRETCHES Your hands are not the sole concern. Perform gentle stretches for the shoulders and neck as well, so tension there doesn’t compromise your efforts. Softening the neck is a topic so important it deserves its own attention, so don’t ignore it.
It is never easy to undo the habits you have developed over a lifetime, but by simply moving more and with more variety throughout the day, you can keep not only your wrists, but your entire body well cared for. Believe in your ability to change yourself, and you can dramatically improve your quality of life across the board.
An internationally respected therapist and educator, Meir Schneider, PhD, is the founder and director of the School for Self-Healing in San Francisco and the author of many books. As a healthcare visionary, he continues to develop his unique therapeutic system for healing a variety of visual disorders often considered beyond medical help. www.self-healing.org