Do you know where’s your carpal tunnel? No? Lucky you!
We mostly learn about how different body parts function when they knock at our door – through pain. So, blessed are you if you didn’t need to say hello to your carpal tunnel yet. Oh – and may that never happen!
So what and where is that carpal tunnel?
Nature has been generous here, we actually have two of them – one in each hand. If you turn your hand and look at your palm, you can picture where it runs: Imagine where your forearm flexor tendons are connecting the fingers and palm with the arm. The tunnel itself is made of mostly bones and connective tissue, but this is a bit like with presents – most important is what’s inside!
Imagine we had all these tendons go all over the place. What a mess. So nature thought of a way how to tidy put them all together in a tunnel. Here they are: the tendons you need to transmit force, and most importantly (sorry, tendons!), the median nerve.
It’s not as if we were all so special. Animals have a median nerve, too, just to give you an idea of how crucial it is for movement. The median nerve is one of the five nerves originating in the brachial plexus, that is the part of the body around your shoulder, a sort of network of fibres, and is crucial for all coordinated movement of neck, armpit, arm and – hands.
This, of course is what happens when all is fine. But the median nerve can really be hitting on your nerves. And it usually tells you quite distinctively when it’s upset. You’ll feel pain, numbness, tingling, weakness (all in your fingers), or your palm might even feel as if it was on fire! Ouch.
What upset this nerve? What the median nerve hates most is being squeezed. We all know this from when we were little. A big hug from grandma or grandpa feels good. Being squeezed so much that we don’t have space to breathe? Not so much. The same happens when we put pressure on the carpal tunnel – it automatically squeezes the median nerve inside.
It might not seem obvious when and how we would do this, but just think of your average day (particularly if you’re a yogi). Think of all these downdogs. Think of all these arm balances. Of all the vinyasas you’re going through, each practice, every day. Hundreds, thousands? The compression of the wrist squeezes the carpal tunnel, and with it the median nerve. Now, the nerve is not such a sissy. A bit of compression here and there won’t upset it that much. But what we’re talking here is years (decades?) of practice. On top of that, the tendons might be inflamed because we’ve used them too much, with too little mindfulness.
What to do?
You’ll be pleased to know that you’re not alone. It’s so common that the docs found a name for it: CTS, carpal tunnel syndrome. Of course most people don’t get it from yoga – it could come from anything that puts pressure on the carpal tunnel – the how and why is still very much debated – and disputed. Some say that gripping your computer mouse tightly all day can trigger it.
However, more important is how we get rid of the symptoms. If the problem started on the mat, we might be able to cure it right there – on the mat. Here’s some things to consider:
– Are your shoulders over your wrists? This is important in postures such as plank or updog. The more your wrists are in extension, the less space the carpal tunnel has.
– Look at the position of your hands in downdog. How do you place your hands on the mat? Which part of the palm and your fingers is touching the floor? Many yogis tend to just “rest” on the carpal tunnel. Try the following: Firmly plant all your fingers on the floor and ever so slightly draw the meaty bits of your palm (the fleshy parts, that is) together – just a little bit, because we still want to have the stability in the posture. Now you’ve created space for the carpal tunnel!
Finally, we shouldn’t be scared of yoga doing harm to our bodies, as long as we practise mindfully. In fact, there’s actually some scientific evidence that yoga might cure people who have CTS for completely different reasons!
Enjoy your practice and remember – there’s light at the end of every tunnel, even the carpal tunnel!