Best Exercises for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, According to Physical Therapists

Carpal tunnel syndrome can be painful and frustrating. Learn how to manage it with exercises recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Jul 24, 2023
Table of Contents

If your fingers frequently feel numb, tingly, weak, or painful, or you wake up in the middle of the night with a “pins and needles” sensation in your hand, you could be dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome. This somewhat common condition impacts three to five percent of adults.

It’s true that carpal tunnel syndrome can be annoying and uncomfortable, and it might interfere with your ability to do certain activities and get a good night’s rest. But the positive news is that there are many non-invasive ways to address it, says CJ Morrow, PT, DPT, OCS, a physical therapist and orthopedic certified specialist at Hinge Health.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a little bit mysterious, she says, because it’s not clear why certain people get it while others doing the same activities don’t. But physiologically speaking, experts know exactly how this problem causes symptoms like numbness. And they also know that there are a lot of things that can help relieve them, including physical therapy.

Here, learn more about carpal tunnel syndrome and which physical therapist-recommended exercises can help you feel better. 

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Our Hinge Health Experts

CJ Morrow, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Morrow is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic specialist with a special interest in the intersection of mental and physical health.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

You might feel carpal tunnel syndrome mostly in your fingers, but the root problem stems from the wrist. The carpal tunnel is literally a tunnel: It’s a narrow channel, and the median nerve — one of the main nerves in the hand — runs right through it. 

The median nerve and related nerves allow your thumb, index finger, middle finger, and part of your ring finger to have sensation, and they control the muscles around the thumb’s base. Nine flexor tendons also run through the carpal tunnel, and these are the tendons that allow you to flex your fingers and thumb.

If you develop carpal tunnel syndrome, it means that the carpal tunnel has become more narrow than usual, or that tissue around the flexor tendons that go through it have become swollen. In either instance, the result is that the median nerve no longer has any wiggle room around it. “Basically, the nerve stops getting the blood flow and nutrients it wants, so it becomes really sensitive,” says Dr. Morrow.

Who Gets Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

No one knows why some people develop this problem while others don’t. And contrary to common belief, there’s no hard evidence that frequent computer use increases your risk of carpal tunnel, says Dr. Morrow. (Several studies have examined the connection between typing and carpal tunnel syndrome. Results have been mixed and contradictory.)

That being said, carpal tunnel syndrome often occurs in people who engage in repetitive tasks with their hands. If you frequently engage in extreme wrist motions — maybe you’re a construction worker or really pound the keys when you type — you might be more likely to develop it. People who often use vibrating tools, like power tools or hairdryers, also have an elevated risk.

Some other risk factors include:

  • Being biologically female. Hormones may play a role in carpal tunnel syndrome. Plus, women tend to have smaller wrists, which means their carpal tunnels are smaller and nerves have less wiggle room compared to in men.

  • Pregnancy. Pregnancy hormones can cause swelling, which can put more pressure on the median nerve.

  • Chronic health conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and thyroid disorders, tend to be associated with an increased incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome. 

  • Family history and genetics. Research has shown that some people may inherit a genetic predisposition to this condition. Just know that a family history of carpal tunnel syndrome does not mean you are bound to develop it, or that you are stuck dealing with it forever if you do develop carpal tunnel syndrome. There are always steps you can take to manage carpal tunnel symptoms and minimize flare-ups.

How to Help Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Whether you know what’s contributed to your carpal tunnel syndrome or not, once you have it, certain activities can certainly aggravate it, says Dr. Morrow. 

There’s no perfect way to set up a workstation, but if you work at a computer, taking some time to examine and reconfigure your desk setup can help a lot. You could try to position your keyboard in a way that allows your fingers to easily reach the keys, and so that your wrists rest in a way that minimizes pressure on the carpal tunnel. Dr. Morrow also recommends trying a “vertical” mouse, which keeps your hand upright in a handshake position instead of bent downward. Other things you can try include:

  • Wearing a wrist brace for a short period. Wrist and hand movement is important, so Dr. Morrow recommends only using this at night while you’re sleeping. (It can be too constricting if worn all day.) There are a lot of braces available. If you have one that comes with a metal part inside it that curves upward, take it out and step on it to flatten it before reinserting it, Dr. Morrow suggests. “Most people feel best with their wrists in a nice, neutral position.”

  • Using heat wraps and paraffin wax. This can help increase blood flow and relax tight muscles. 

  • Relieving tension in your neck, upper back, and shoulders. This can help make everything from your head to your fingertips feel better. Consider stretching or deep breathing exercises. You can also try alternative options like massage. 

7 Exercises for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Wrist Bends
  • Hand Tendon Glides
  • Isometric Wrist Flexion
  • Hook Hands
  • Isometric Thumb Abduction and Adduction
  • Thumb Opposition
  • Median Nerve Glides

These exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are beneficial for many people with carpal tunnel syndrome.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

Physical Therapy for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, working with a physical therapist (PT) can be very helpful. A physical therapist will do a full assessment and determine whether you’re dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome or a different problem. They will examine your hands and wrists as well as your elbow, shoulder, and neck. “The median nerve comes from the middle of the neck and travels down from the shoulder to the front of the arm and into the hand,” Dr. Morrow explains, “so that’s why we look at everything from the neck down.”

Depending on the findings of this assessment, a physical therapist can design a personalized plan to help you restore sensitivity and combat pain and numbness. Ultimately, their goal is to help you get back to doing your daily activities, and what you enjoy, without pain. 

You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

PT Tip: Check in on Your Stress

Believe it or not, carpal tunnel is influenced by a lot of different factors — just like all types of pain. Stress, depression, anxiety, and anger can all play a role in carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms, says Dr. Morrow. If you’re under a lot of stress, it might be worthwhile to check in with yourself to see if it might be impacting your carpal tunnel symptoms. If so, things like counseling, meditation, yoga, or other stress-relieving strategies may be very helpful. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.  

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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