Have you ever wondered if the exercises you are doing could be making your carpal tunnel symptoms worse? In this post, I’m sharing the worst exercises for carpal tunnel syndrome. In fact, many of these are all over the internet promising to help your symptoms. However, they could be hurting your chances at finding relief from numbness and tingling.

More importantly, I’ll show you 2 rather simple carpal tunnel exercises to do instead.

Carpal Tunnel Symptoms

Before we dive in, let’s review the symptoms real quick. Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a compression of your median nerve at your wrist. This causes numbness and tingling to your thumb, index, middle finger and half of your ring finger. The other half of your ring finger and your pinky finger are not affected. And one of the hallmark signs is that your symptoms are often worse at night.

Carpal tunnel syndrome causing numbness and tingling

Let’s take a look at the carpal tunnel exercises you should avoid and why. Or you can watch my WORST Exercises for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and What To Do Instead YouTube video here.



Worst Carpal Tunnel Exercise 1: Wrist Flexion Stretches

Wrist flexion stretches are often recommended for carpal tunnel relief, but are not as beneficial as you think. Bending your wrist forward and over-flexing your wrist actually compresses the median nerve within your carpal tunnel. Excessive flexion not only prevents your nerve from gliding or moving but when you think about it, you’re actually pinching it. Which can cause your symptoms to worsen.

The other reason why I think this is one of the worst exercises for carpal tunnel syndrome is because the stretch requires you to place your wrist in the same position as the Phalen’s test. The Phalen’s test is a diagnostic test for carpal tunnel.

To do this test flex both of your wrists and press them together to compress the nerve. If you get numbness and tingling in your fingers and thumb then that is considered a positive test.

I guess you could say wrist flexion stretches are a Phalen’s test that you are doing over and over again. Pass on that one!

Worst Carpal Tunnel Exercise 2: Wrist Extension Stretches

Now we move from wrist flexion to wrist extension. This similar stretch requires you to bend your wrist in the opposite direction into extension. Which in turn can cause over stretching of your median nerve.

Interestingly, one study suggested that people with CTS have a smaller carpal tunnel. You could just be born with it. Unfortunately, when you have carpal tunnel your nerve is enlarged. Not a good combination.

With wrist flexion and extension the space available for the median nerve gets even more narrow. This increases pressure on the nerve causing numbness and tingling symptoms. In fact, one study stated passive flexion or extension of the wrist could lead to a fivefold increase in carpal tunnel pressure. 

Bottomline, skip pushing into ranges of motion that increase pressure on an already enlarged nerve.

Worst Carpal Tunnel Exercise 3: Gripping Exercises

Resistive gripping & repetitive squeezing exercises, even though they might seem innocent, apply a mechanical load to your wrist and could elevate the pressure in the tunnel significantly.  When you grip your lumbricals, which are small muscles in your hand, are thought to jam into the carpal tunnel space adding to nerve irritation.

The tunnel is already packed with no extra space for additional muscles to be repetitively moving in and out. The tunnel is about the size of a quarter. So that’s not a lot of room for your median nerve, 9 finger and thumb tendons plus 4 lumbrical muscles…that’s a lot of uninvited guests.

Another reason that is really more of a hypothesis on my part- is if your sensation is impaired you may not realize how hard you are gripping. Since your fingers don’t feel sensations normally, you could be gripping too forcefully which could aggravate your nerve even more.

Just something to think about and for that, avoid squeezing into tight fists until your nerve calms down and sensation returns.

Worst Carpal Tunnel Exercise 4: Full Median Nerve Glides

Finally, one of the worst exercises for carpal tunnel syndrome is median nerve glides. Hear me out on this one.

Not all median nerve glides are created equal. There are many, many variations of nerve glides. You may also hear them referred to as nerve sliders or nerve flossers and they are commonly given as an exercise for carpal tunnel relief. In fact, I have a video and blog post demonstrating them here.

Nerve glides should be done in stages or phases and when performed correctly they actually can be helpful. However I am talking about the end phase of the nerve glide given as the exercise.

This involves excessive stretching of the neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand and often moving too quickly through these motions. When in reality you want to move slowly, just 1 joint at a time so you can make sure you are not increasing your symptoms during the glide.

The problem is this is often confused as a muscle stretch but can easily lead to straining the median nerve. It is best to do nerve glides in stages slowly and only if you are symptom free.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t bend your wrist in flexion or extension or grip anything when you have carpal tunnel syndrome. But by steering clear of exercises that can irritate your nerves, you can move forward on finding ones that provide relief.

What should you do instead?

The good news is I have 2 exercises for you!

The 1st is a Myofascial stretch to your carpal ligament.

Remember earlier when I told you that wrist extension stretches are one of the worst? Well, there is a better way to do them.

In fact, one research study showed if you can put your wrist in extension while focusing on stretching your carpal tunnel ligament, you can in turn lengthen the roof of your tunnel. This giving more space for your nerve.

To do this myofascial stretch, place your hand flat on a wall. Gently pull your thumb near the base with your other hand. The stretch should be felt over your carpal ligament near your wrist. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds at a time, do these 4 times a day for 6 weeks.

The 2nd exercise is Finger Abduction and Adduction. Better known as Finger spreads.

This exercise is based on a promising research study that compared several traditional exercises to see which one actually targeted the median nerve within the carpal tunnel the most. And out of all the exercises the finger abduction and adduction exercise resulted in the most nerve gliding throughout the arm and in the tunnel. The other more traditional exercises showed very little or no actual nerve movement within the carpal tunnel.

This is important because our nerves and tendons need to move smoothly within all the little spaces and tunnels they travel through.

To do this exercise stand with your arms out to the side, shoulders and elbows bent at 90 degrees, wrist straight and fingers straight. Then spread your fingers apart and together. This is abduction and adduction of your fingers.

Plus you can do both hands at the same time. Do 10 repetitions, 3-4 times a day.

Let’s wrap up the worst exercises for carpal tunnel syndrome

You may think these exercises seem too simple or too good to be true. But movements that target your median nerve shouldn’t be complicated, cause increased symptoms, or overstretch your nerve. You really can do these anywhere.

Of course, it is important to get a thorough evaluation to make sure you have carpal tunnel syndrome and not a look alike condition such as Lacertus syndrome, pronator teres syndrome, or cervical involvement. Always take the time to explain your symptoms clearly to your doctor.