Can Physical Therapy Help You Avoid Carpal Tunnel Surgery?

Health & Medical Blog

Do you work in a job where you do the same tasks over and over? Repetitive motion could cause the medial nerve and tendons that run through a narrow passage in your wrist, called the carpal tunnel, to swell. This swelling can compress the nerve and cause numbness or pain. 

Between 3 and 6 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. If rest from the repetitive motion and taking anti-inflammatory medications don't help to relieve the problem, surgery to widen the carpal tunnel is often the next step.

If you're looking for a treatment that can keep you from undergoing surgery, researchers are studying the use of physical therapy to effectively treat carpal tunnel syndrome. Could it work for you? Here's the rundown.

For whom does physical therapy work best to treat carpal tunnel?

People who have been recently diagnosed and have mild to moderate cases of carpal tunnel syndrome may benefit most from physical therapy. If pain has been ongoing or is severe, there may be nerve damage that won't improve with physical therapy.

Does physical therapy help in the long term?

One study done on women in Spain showed that physical therapy had a better outcome in the short term and comparable results to surgery in mid- and long-term exams. The group of patients tested received three sessions of physical therapy and were checked for pain reduction at 1, 3, 6 and 12 months.

The sessions included manual techniques that helped to keep the median nerve from getting trapped in the carpal tunnel.

What types of exercises can you do to help carpal tunnel?

If you regularly perform repetitive work, there are some exercises you can do that can help prevent carpal tunnel problems. The most effective exercises stretch the wrist and the carpal tunnel area to relieve pressure and tightness.

Once you already have carpal tunnel, the physical therapy exercises that are most likely to reduce pain include soft tissue mobilization and stretching. Nerve-gliding exercises like the ones performed by physical therapists must be done with caution. An untrained person may make the symptoms worse with improper performance of nerve-gliding movements.

If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, talk to your doctor about referring you to physical therapy as treatment for the pain you are experiencing. Your doctor may suggest other therapies as well, including resting or splinting your wrist when you are not exercising, taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to help with the pain and using ice for calming the inflammation.


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