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Dr. Pamela Fernandes  |  2 February 2021   

It’s not uncommon to encounter athletes of martial arts with carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). In many martial arts, hand techniques or using wrists as weapons causes compression of the median nerve.

As a result, it can be hard to flex your wrist. UFC flyweight contender Ian McCall had three surgeries. After breaking his hand, he found he couldn’t close his wrist. “I only had one hand,” he said as he couldn’t use his right hand.

How To Prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Carpal tunnel syndrome presents with numbness of the hand, tingling, pain, weakness, and burning. It is common among artists flexing and using their wrists. Carpal tunnel syndrome can be extremely painful and vexing. However, you can prevent it from occurring through a few steps.

Stretch Those Wrists

When Conor Mcgregor was about to fight Mayweather. He was given a “puncher’s chance.” McGregor says, "It's not about lifting heavy and sparring hard. It's about the body being loose and flexible and having great balance; that's the basis of martial arts.” Yet, stretching is a big part of his unusual warm-up routine.

You can do similar stretches by bending one wrist with your fingers pointing up. Hold for 10 – 20 seconds, then perform the stretch on the other hand.

Once you complete this, bend the wrist with the fingers pointing down. Hold for 10 – 20 seconds then do the same with the other wrist.

Additionally, stretch your fingers. Spread your fingers, stretching them as far as you can. Hold two or three seconds, then close your first. 

Do this with both hands at least ten times. These exercises do not just provide warmup but increase the flexibility of the forearm muscles and improve grip strength. They also release any strain on the carpal tunnel and the enclosed median nerve.

Squeeze Balls

Say what? We mean tennis balls! Squeezing a ball or other hand grips can activate the wrist muscles. This repeated grip and release motion will relieve any tension or strain that is built up within the hand muscles. Do it for a minute with a tennis ball or for as long as you’re comfortable. This exercise can also improve your grip strength and improve dexterity.

Wrist Curls

Wrist curls improve hand, wrist, and forearm strength. Also known as finger curls, martial artists use this exercise mainly to improve their punching power and grappling strength. Here’s a video that shows you how to do wrist curls. You don’t need any fancy equipment just some 20-pound dumbbells and a workbench. 

Hold the dumbbells with the wrist hanging off the bench. Let the weight roll all the way down to your fingertips. And then roll them up and squeeze at the top. Do 10-12 reps. You will feel a slight burn in the forearm muscles. You can take a rest break and then do 2 more sets if possible.

Reverse Wrist Curls

Another exercise to prevent CTS is the reverse curl exercise. You can do this with dumbbells, a straight bar, or an EZ curl bar. Here you maintain a palms-down grip, with your elbows close to your rib cage, and lift the weight pulling up with the top of your hands. Do 10 reps followed by a break and do two more sets if possible. This will also loosen and strengthen forearm muscles. It will also give you that “Never let go” grip that every grappler craves.

Be Careful At Work

It’s not just training in martial arts that will give you carpal tunnel syndrome. Finer movements that compress the carpal tunnel can be cradling a newborn’s head, playing sports, playing video games, cycling, typing on a computer, sewing, crafting, or even playing a musical instrument. 

If you do any or all of these activities in addition to martial arts, you might be at risk for CTS. How to prevent it? Try taking frequent breaks during these activities. Stretch your wrists and try to keep them in a neutral position always. 

What If I Have CTS?

For those who already have CTS, you might be able to reverse your condition in the early stages by avoiding too much wrist activity. Additionally, a wrist brace or support can help alleviate the pain. A splint is also recommended at night for those with severe pain. Avoid any activity that aggravates this condition be it cycling or typing.

Analgesics can help if the pain is severe. If you have a condition that causes fluid retention like hypertension, kidney disease, or autoimmune conditions, then seek treatment. The last resort for those with severe pain is surgery.

Light At The End of The Carpal Tunnel

There is hope for those who have carpal tunnel syndrome. It can be chronic and debilitating for some. However, it is preventable and for martial artists who need their hands as weapons, it makes sense to train smart and stave off this injury if you want to have a long career in martial arts. What moves cause you to develop CTS and how do you prevent it? Let us know.

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About the author

Dr. Pamela Q. Fernandes is an author, doctor and medical writer. Born and raised in Kuwait, she graduated from Angeles University College of Medicine, Philippines in 2007. Soon after that, she started her career as a medical writer and physician. Pamela is an advocate of preventive health, rural medicine, women’s health and tele-medicine having been active in these roles for the majority of her decade long career in medicine. She an Aikido practitioner. You can find out more about her at https://www.pamelaqfernandes.com.

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