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Prevent hand and wrist pain with position changes & simple exercises

Most people don’t realize just how much they rely on their hands and wrists until a problem arises. This is often the case for anyone with hand or wrist pain, which can turn many everyday activities into challenging tasks that require a strategy to overcome or complete avoidance in some cases. As a result, daily life may become a series of obstacles that each need to be faced with a specific approach in order to keep painful encounters at a minimum.

There are a number of conditions that can affect the hands and wrists, which consist of a complex network of bones, ligaments, muscles, and tendons that are all essential for allowing a wide range of functions. When a problem occurs with any of these structures—such as being stretched too far, becoming inflamed, or experiencing other types of damage—the resulting symptoms will often have an impact on other aspects of hand and wrist motion, too.

It goes without saying, then, that most people would probably prefer to not experience hand or wrist pain in the first place. The good news is that many of the conditions responsible for pain can be prevented, and some causes are more preventable than others.

The dangers of repetitive motions

Throughout a typical day, you use your hands and wrists almost constantly. From the vigorous brushing of your teeth in the morning, to the turning off of lights before getting into bed, and with just about every other action in a typical day, you are utilizing these body parts and need them to function. But over time, performing certain tasks on a repetitive basis can actually go on to damage some of the structures of the hands and wrists in what’s called a repetitive strain injury.

A repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a potentially disabling condition that results from overuse of a body region or structure—usually the hand or wrist—after performing the same movement over and over. Repetitive motions, like typing on a computer, cutting hair, working on an assembly line, or even using a cellphone can all cause increase stress and fatigue of different structures, resulting in pain and other symptoms in the hand or wrist.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is by far the most common and well-known RSI, as up to 5% of the adult population is currently affected by it. This type of RSI is believed to be caused by tasks that involve repeated hand motions, awkward positioning of the hand or wrist, vibration, or excessive gripping, and individuals who work in industries like manufacturing, food processing, and textiles are likely at the highest risk. Over time, these movements can cause the median nerve within the carpal tunnel to be compressed, which leads to pain, tingling, weakness, and/or numbness in the hand or wrist.

Other RSIs of the hand and wrist include ulnar tunnel syndrome, radial tunnel syndrome, trigger finger, trigger thumb, wrist tendinitis, and De Quervain’s tenosynovitis. Each of these conditions also result from performing the same movements repeatedly, and in turn, their painful symptoms will make it difficult to complete these very same tasks. But this also underscores a very important point: learning how to modify certain movements that can be damaging or even avoiding them entirely—whenever possible—is exactly how to prevent an RSI from developing in the first place. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind that will reduce your chances of experiencing hand and wrist pain:

  • Adjust your posture and the positioning of your hands and wrists
    • Try to keep your shoulders square rather than rolled forward when sitting, standing, and walking
    • Hunched posture contributes to strain down the entire arm to the hands and wrists, so try to perform tasks with the arms at a comfortable distance from the body: not too close and not too far
    • Keep your wrists in a neutral position that’s parallel to the ground, or slightly bent downwards towards the keyboard; avoid flexing your wrists and angling them upwards to reach the keyboard
  • Try to avoid repetitive straining movements
    • Pay attention to how you use your hands when performing tasks at work and elsewhere, especially those that are done repeatedly
    • Avoid tasks that require constant bending or twisting of your hands for extended periods of time; if these movements are part of your profession, try to take frequent short breaks and even shorter “micro-breaks,” switch hands, and rotate tasks whenever it’s possible to do so
  • Modify your workstation positioning and habits
    • Although the association between computer use and carpal tunnel syndrome has not yet been proven, bad typing habits and workstation setup can still strain the wrists and possibly lead to an RSI; you can avoid this by optimizing your workstation and habits with the following:
      • Make sure your forearms are level and wrists are not flexed and in a neutral position when you type
      • Don’t rest your wrists on the table surface
      • Try to avoid reaching too far on the keyboard with one hand
      • Change your hand positions often and take frequent breaks
  • Exercises and stretches
    • Stretching and conditioning your hands and wrists is another one of the best ways to avoid repetitive strain, especially for those who work in high-risk occupations; here are a few helpful stretches to get you started:
      • Wall stretch: extend your arm along a wall, parallel to the ground and with your palm facing the wall; attempt to open your chest so that your shoulders and arm are perpendicular, then extend the fingers and palm away from wall as much as possible; hold for 30-60 seconds
      • Doorway stretch: hold your elbow at a right angle and place your forearm along doorframe; lunge forward, keeping the chest and pelvis facing squarely forward; hold for 30-60 seconds
      • For more tips and stretches, click here or here.
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