The carpal tunnel is a narrow pathway on the palm side of the wrist, through which the median nerve travels. This nerve can be compressed within the tunnel by overuse of your wrist and fingers or by trauma to your hand. Nerve compression can lead to pain, numbness, tingling and weakness. If these symptoms become severe, surgery may be required to relieve pressure on the nerve. Exercises are performed after surgery to improve nerve healing and increase range of motion and strength. Follow your doctor or physical therapist's specific instructions about which exercises are best for you.
If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
Range of Motion
Range-of-motion exercises restore movement of your fingers and wrist after carpal tunnel surgery. Tendon-gliding exercises are examples of these types of exercises. Nine tendons travel through the carpal tunnel as they connect muscles in the arm to the fingers that they move. Typical tendon-gliding exercises include making a hook fist -- bending your small knuckles in your fingers; flat fist -- bending your large and middle knuckles; and full fist -- bending all your finger joints together. Thumb exercises include bending your thumb into your palm, touching it to the tips of each finger and lifting it up and out to the side. Wrist range-of-motion exercises may also be performed to help reduce stiffness after surgery.
- Range-of-motion exercises restore movement of your fingers and wrist after carpal tunnel surgery.
- Typical tendon-gliding exercises include making a hook fist -- bending your small knuckles in your fingers; flat fist -- bending your large and middle knuckles; and full fist -- bending all your finger joints together.
Exercises for Scapular Pain
Inflammation in the carpal tunnel may cause your median nerve to get stuck in the surrounding tissues. Nerve-gliding exercises improve movement of the nerve 2. The median nerve is glided through a series of hand and finger positions.
After carpal tunnel surgery, you may experience discomfort at the location of your surgery and in the fingers whose sensation comes from the median nerve -- the palm-side of your thumb, index and middle fingers, and half of your ring finger. Desensitization exercises expose these areas of your hand to different textures until they are no longer irritating to the touch. Items such as:
- a towel
- cotton ball
- pencil eraser
- popcorn kernels
- dry rice may be used for desensitization
Typically these items are gently rubbed on the sensitive skin several times each day for up to 15 minutes until sensation returns to normal.
Wrist Exercises After Surgery
Strengthening exercises after carpal tunnel release target 3 small muscles that bend your thumb into your palm, oppose it against other fingers and move it out to the side. These muscles are powered by the median nerve and may become weak from nerve compression. Grip-strengthening exercises are also included. These exercises typically start 3 to 4 weeks after surgery and can be performed with exercise putty, rubber bands or other hand-specific exercise equipment.
- Strengthening exercises after carpal tunnel release target 3 small muscles that bend your thumb into your palm, oppose it against other fingers and move it out to the side.
- These muscles are powered by the median nerve and may become weak from nerve compression.
Exercises for Scapular Pain
Wrist Exercises After Surgery
What Are the Names of the Muscles in the Arm & Shoulder?
Physical Therapy Exercises After Hand Surgery
Arm Stretches on the Wall for the Median Nerve
A Rehabilitation Exercise for a Pulled Biceps Muscle
Thumb Range of Motion & Strengthening Exercises
How to Improve Blood Circulation in Hands
Causes of a Numb Pinkie Finger
Trigger Finger Surgery Rehabilitation
- Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center: Occupational Therapy: Carpal Tunnel Treatment Protocol
- New England Hand Associates: Median Nerve Gliding Exercises
- Ohio State University Medical Center: Desensitization Exercises
- World Journal of Radiology: A Handy Review of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: From Anatomy to Diagnosis and Treatment
- Open Orthopaedics Journal: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: A Review of the Recent Literature
- Ghasemi-Rad M, Nosair E, Vegh A, et al. A handy review of carpal tunnel syndrome: From anatomy to diagnosis and treatment. World J Radiol. 2014;6(6):284. doi:10.4329/wjr.v6.i6.284
- Bayot ML, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Brachial Plexus. Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing. Updated February 15, 2019.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Fact Sheet. Updated August 13, 2019.
- Wipperman J, Goerl K. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. 2016;94(12):993-999.
- Dahlin LB, Wiberg M. Nerve injuries of the upper extremity and hand. EFORT Open Rev. 2017;2(5):158-170. doi:10.1302/2058-5241.2.160071
- Kumar V, Singh A. Fracture Supracondylar Humerus: A Review. J Clin Diagn Res. 2016;10(12):RE01-RE06. doi:10.7860/jcdr/2016/21647.8942
- Pederson WC. Median nerve injury and repair. J Hand Surg Am. 2014 Jun;39(6):1216-22. doi:10.1016/j.jhsa.2014.01.025
- Wipperman J, Goerl K. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Diagnosis and Management. Am Fam Physician. 2016 Dec 15;94(12):993-999.
- Presazzi A, Bortolotto C, Zacchino M, Madonia L, Draghi F. Carpal tunnel: Normal anatomy, anatomical variants and ultrasound technique. J Ultrasound. 2011;14(1):40-6. doi:10.1016/j.jus.2011.01.006
- Goitz RJ, Fowler JR, Li ZM. The transverse carpal ligament: anatomy and clinical implications. J Wrist Surg. 2014;3(4):233-4. doi:10.1055/s-0034-1394150
- Cleveland Clinic. Carpal tunnel syndrome. Updated October 22, 2019.
- Aboonq MS. Pathophysiology of carpal tunnel syndrome. Neurosciences (Riyadh). 2015;20(1):4–9.
- Cleveland Clinic. Carpal tunnel syndrome: Diagnosis and tests. Updated October 22, 2019.
- Page MJ, O'connor D, Pitt V, Massy-Westropp N. Exercise and mobilisation interventions for carpal tunnel syndrome. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;(6):CD009899. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD009899
- Newington L, Harris EC, Walker-Bone K. Carpal tunnel syndrome and work. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol. 2015;29(3):440–453. doi:10.1016/j.berh.2015.04.026
- Wright AR, Atkinson RE. Carpal tunnel syndrome: An update for the primary care physician. Hawaii J Health Soc Welf. 2019;78(11 Suppl 2):6–10.
- Cleveland Clinic. Carpal tunnel syndrome: Management and treatment. Updated October 22, 2019.
Aubrey Bailey has been writing health-related articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in ADVANCE for Physical Therapy & Rehab Medicine. She holds a Bachelor of Science in physical therapy and Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University at Buffalo, as well as a post-professional Doctor of Physical Therapy from Utica College. Dr. Bailey is also a certified hand therapist.