You just got done with a set of heavy bench presses and you feel super accomplished. There's only one problem: Your wrists are sore.
Weight-lifting exercises, such as the bench press and bicep curls, can put strain on your wrists, especially if you're using heavy weights or doing high repetitions.
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But don't worry, there's good news coming. Not only are there steps you can take to treat your achy wrists, but you can prevent it from happening again in the future, too.
Ahead, we dive into the potential causes of wrist pain while lifting and how to fix it.
If your wrists hurt during or after lifting and you experience severe pain, swelling, numbness or coldness in your hand or wrist, stop exercising immediately and make an appointment with your doctor or seek emergency care. More serious injuries may require medical attention and possibly even surgery if the ligament or tendon is torn.
Causes of Wrist Pain During and After Lifting Weights
1. You Have a Wrist Strain or Sprain
Strains and sprains account for 46.1 percent of all injuries from resistance training, according to a November 2017 review in the Journal of Orthopaedics.
A wrist strain can be acute or chronic, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC). An acute strain can happen when a muscle or tendon is stretched or pulled too far. A chronic strain is an overuse injury to a muscle or tendon due to prolonged, repetitive movement. The symptoms of a strain are:
- Muscle spasms
- Muscle weakness
A wrist sprain, per the URMC, is the result of a ligament being stretched, torn or ruptured. When you experience a wrist sprain, you may feel a tear or pop in the joint. Other symptoms of a sprain are:
Some lifting techniques may put too much pressure on your wrist or cause it to bend in an unnatural way (more on that below). For example, if you're doing a biceps curl with a straight bar, it may cause your wrist to twist. You may feel pain, tingling or swelling on the pinkie side of your wrist. These may be strains or sprains.
2. Your Lifting Technique and Form Is Off
Doing each exercise with proper form is extremely important. If your form is off — due to lifting too much weight (more on that below) or lack of experience — this may result in wrist pain or other injuries, depending on the move.
Make sure to move through your full range of motion for each exercise, never lock out any joints and decrease the amount of weight you're lifting or number of reps you're doing if your form is off and you're feeling discomfort or pain, per the Mayo Clinic.
If you're unsure about how to do a certain exercise, ask a fitness expert, like a personal trainer, for help.
3. You're Lifting Too Much Weight
Lifting more weight than you can comfortably handle in the name of a personal record or bragging rights is a recipe for injury. Start with a weight you can easily lift for 12 to 15 reps, per the Mayo Clinic. As you get stronger, don't make large leaps in the weights you choose — gradually increase your amount little by little instead.
4. You Have Tendonitis
Sore wrists from working out may be caused by tendonitis. Tendonitis is the inflammation of a tendon (the connective tissues between your muscles and bones), according to the Cleveland Clinic, and may be caused by the repetitive movement of weightlifting.
Other Causes of Wrist Pain
If your wrist pain gets worse or continues for more than a few days, chat with your doctor as it may be caused by another more serious condition such as carpal tunnel or osteoarthritis.
Carpal tunnel is caused by the compression of the nerve in your wrist. Symptoms include weakness in your grip, wrist pain, numbness and tingling.
If you've injured your wrist in the past, you're at greater risk of developing osteoarthritis, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is caused by the deterioration of the cartilage on the bones in your arm, wrist and hand.
1. The POLICE Method
First-line treatment for wrist pain from lifting weights begins with POLICE, which is an acronym that represents a common set of initial treatment guidelines, according to Riverside Physiotherapy:
- Optimum Loading
After you sprain your wrist, plan to rest and protect the joint from further injury for up to 10 to 14 days with a light immobilization brace. Optimum loading refers to "the gentle motion you can start while in the protection phase," per Riverside Physiotherapy. "You should be able to progress to a passive range-of-motion (ROM) movement, to active ROM movement and finally, to strengthening exercises."
You can cover your wrist with a wet towel and apply ice for 10 to 20 minutes followed by 20 minutes of no ice. You can repeat this cycle throughout the day, up to 48 hours post-injury, per Rothman Orthopaedics.
2. Compression and Elevation
Prefabricated wrist splints, elastic bandages and sports tape all have their place. Initially, you can wrap an elastic bandage around your wrist and hand to provide compression, per Summit Orthopedics.
If the pain is still significant or waking you up at night, try a prefabricated wrist splint instead. While at rest, keep your wrist elevated above the level of your heart whenever possible to help reduce swelling and pain.
Wrap compression bandages snugly but not too snugly — you don't want to cut off circulation. You should be able to slide a finger between the wrap and your skin. If your fingers feel cold, are tingling or turning blue, loosen the wrap.
3. Over-the-Counter Medications
Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen and aspirin, can help treat pain and inflammation, per the Cleveland Clinic. Acetaminophen is an option for additional pain relief. You may need to take these medications several times a day. Follow the dosing instructions on the medication package and check with your doctor to be sure the medication is safe for you.
Although not all wrist injuries in the gym can be prevented, using proper form and lifting weights that are appropriate to your fitness level can help. Grip barbells tightly to prevent excess movement of your weights, which can further tax the structures in your wrist. Additionally, consider wearing a wrist guard or brace to help support the joint during exercise.
If you're not sure how to do an exercise or if your form is off, ask a trainer to help while working out.
Wrist and forearm stretches may also help to resolve and prevent wrist pain. Be sure to talk with your doctor before adding these exercises to your routine. These stretches shouldn't hurt, so if you experience pain, stop the movement.
One basic wrist stretch recommended by the Hand Surgery Specialists of Texas is flexion to extension of the wrist. Rest your forearm on a table or other flat surface with your wrists and hands hanging over the edge. Then flex your wrist forward and backward until you feel a stretch. Hold for 3 seconds at the top of the movement and repeat 10 times on each arm.
Another stretch is wrist circles, per the Hand Surgery Specialists of Texas. With your arms at your side and elbows bent at a 90-degree angle, rotate your wrists in full circles toward your body, then away from your body. Do 3 sets of 5 to 10 reps of this exercise.
- Journal of Orthopaedics: "Upper Extremity Weightlifting Injuries: Diagnosis and Management"
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "Sprains, Strains, Breaks: What’s the Difference?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Weight training: Do's and don'ts of proper technique"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Tendonitis"
- Cleveland Clinic: "NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs)"
- Summit Orthopedics: "How to Wrap Your Wrist"
- Riverside Physiotherapy: "Why P.O.L.I.C.E is the smart response to sports injuries"
- Rothman Orthopaedics: "R.I.C.E. - Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevate"
- How to Wrap a Wrist with Athletic Tape