Could Yoga Cause Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

If you’re one of those good yogis that does their six days a week practice, you’ll be spending a lot of time pressing your palms into the floor with every vinyāsa, plank and sun salutation. It may happen that you start getting a tingling through your hands and wrists, and rumours about yoga and carpal tunnel begin floating through your head…

Defining Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by pressure on the median nerve as it passes across the front of the wrist in something called the carpal tunnel.

Image Credit: Trace Meek on flickr.
Image Credit: Trace Meek on flickr.

The carpal tunnel is made up of the bones of your wrist, or carpus, and a tough fibrous band called the flexor retinaculum. Normally there is plenty of room for the nerve to move around but if the carpal tunnel gets a bit narrowed the median nerve is unable to move freely. This can cause tingling in the thumb and some fingers. Usually positions that involve straight arms and extended wrists bring on the symptoms and moving out of the position will make the tingling disappear so we think nothing of it. Unfortunately we use that position rather a lot in yoga, don’t we?

As the condition progresses, pressure on the nerve increases. The tingling gets worse and may not be cleared by change of position. At this stage the tingling may be there all the time and can be painful enough to interrupt your sleep. If left untreated, the nerve damage causes decay in some hand muscles and other areas go completely numb. Pretty unpleasant by all accounts.

The Role That Yoga Plays

The causes of carpal tunnel syndrome are not clear. Researchers have suggested risk factors like repetitive trauma to the carpal tunnel, poor wrist alignment when using your keyboard or bicycle brakes, water retention, diabetes and obesity. Of course, all those vinyāsas and sun salutes can’t help but place a lot of pressure on that part of the wrist as well.

Healthy wrists in yoga depends on where our weight is when we’re grounding down through our hands in down dog. Ideally we would press through the fingers and under the knuckles rather than through the wrist, but it takes time and practice to get this right. Many inexperienced yogis will dump weight down through their wrists and this could be enough to trigger carpal tunnel symptoms.

Prevention Is Better Than Recovery

Image Credit: Army Medicine on flickr.
Image Credit: Army Medicine on flickr.

It’s always better to start working now and prevent injury, than recovering from a condition you could have avoided. The secret to better grounding through your hands starts from your shoulders.

Specifically, you should bring your awareness between your shoulder blades where your rhomboid muscles are. Squeeze here and draw your shoulder blades together as you ground through your hands to push your weight into your fingertips and lift your wrists. This takes pressure off your carpal tunnel and protects your median nerve. 

You’ll really feel it in your forearms too as your wrist flexors engage. Generally we have weak wrist flexors on the front of the wrist, and over-developed extensors at the back. This comes as a result of the 21st century lifestyle making us use our hands for more precision work in extension (i.e. typing) and less for strong gripping.

And in practice….

It may be too much to start working your rhomboids and wrist flexors with your full body weight on them. Starting with some exercises with less weight through your hands is a good idea. You can then build up as your strength increases and technique improves. How about giving these a try?

  1. In Extended Child’s Pose, draw your shoulder blades together, keep a micro-bend in your elbows and push through fingers. Feel your wrists lifting. Hold for a few breaths
  2. On all fours, with hands at least shoulders’ width apart, squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for a few breaths.
  3. As you get stronger, try consciously thinking about squeezing between those shoulder blades in your Downward Facing Dog, and feeling the weight lift from your wrists. Hold for a few breaths.
  4. When you are feeling very strong, pulse between Down Dog and Plank, keeping those rhomboids activated and the weight in your fingertips all the time.

Working With Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

If you have been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome you can still try the suggested activities above. As long as the exercises don’t cause you any pain or tingling you are fine to work with them. In fact, by changing your technique some people have been able to abolish the symptoms.

Image Credit: Droid Gingerbread on flickr.
Image Credit: Droid Gingerbread on flickr.

If you have advanced symptoms and are unable to do the exercises above you may still be able to modify your yoga practice to avoid poses that involve wrist extension. You could try doing Down Dog on your fists with straight wrists. Avoid weight bearing through your hands and concentrate on standing, sitting and lying poses.

In my research, I did find one 1998 study that reported a reduction in carpal tunnel symptoms. The authors used a lot of arm stretches like prayer positions and eagle arms combined with side stretches turning palms upwards, so these could be worth a try to relieve your symptoms. No matter the exercise, always be wary of aggravating things and go very gently to begin with.

Over To You

So, can yoga give you carpal tunnel symptoms? The short answer is yes — but that’s not the end of the story. You can actively avoid the problem by working on your grounding technique. You can even modify your practice so carpal tunnel symptoms do not mean the end of āsana for you. There also a chance that yoga will relieve the problem so roll out that mat, give some of those rhomboid strengtheners a go and let me know how you get on in the comments below!

Sally Schofield
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