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Physical Therapy Exercises After Carpal Tunnel Surgery

author image Aubrey Bailey
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.
Physical Therapy Exercises After Carpal Tunnel Surgery
A woman wearing a wrist brace types on a computer Photo Credit: IMAGELAGOON02/iStock/Getty Images

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.

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Range of Motion

A doctor manipulates a patient's hand
A doctor manipulates a patient's hand Photo Credit: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Getty Images

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.

Nerve Gliding

A hand in a fist
A hand in a fist Photo Credit: Jupiterimages/>>/Getty Images

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. The median nerve is glided through a series of hand and finger positions. Beginning with your wrist straight and fingers in a fist, your fingers are first straightened, then your wrist is bent backward, thumb is moved out to the side, forearm is rotated into a palm-up position and finally a gentle stretch is applied to the thumb using your opposite hand.


A bowl of popcorn kernals
A bowl of popcorn kernals Photo Credit: Iwanyan/iStock/Getty Images

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, beans and 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.


A hand at a desk holds two balls
A hand at a desk holds two balls Photo Credit: kraiwut/iStock/Getty Images

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.

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