The most important thing I did to overcome my carpal tunnel and RSI symptoms from playing saxophone is very counterintuitive. When I first injured myself, I couldn’t open my left hand, and had to go to the hospital after about four days. I couldn’t open my hand at all for about four days without severe burning pain throughout here. I had an operation; they cut this open and relieved some of the pressure, and I was in a cast for about four months. I couldn’t play my horn at all.
So, I had a pretty severe case, and since that time I’ve constantly been battling recurring symptoms. It’s been a major detriment to my technique and my ability to play the things I hear. But surprisingly, what I’ve found to be the greatest asset to my recovery is counterintuitive. It’s actually lifting very light weights, using the forearms. I guess the way it works is by creating and building more muscle mass in that region, it increases circulation, and the circulation of blood is what allows, and helps foster the healing in that region. When the muscles become bigger and the circulation increases, when you sleep at night and throughout the day the whole area can heal much more rapidly, and you don’t have a deterioration of the muscles in that region.
It’s been really strange, I’ve been doing it now for over one year and the pain in both my hands is almost completely gone all the time. Even if I’ve played up to six hours in a day, as long as I’ve paced myself, I’ve had very little pain. I do get fatigue, where I feel tired throughout my hand and forearm, but I don’t have pain, which is an amazing thing for me after this first bout with carpal tunnel in 1990. Now it’s 2008 and I only discovered this last year.
I say it’s counterintuitive because normally you want to baby your hands, you don’t want to lift anything, you don’t want to open jars, you don’t want to do anything that might strain the muscles in your hand; what happens is that the muscles slowly begin to atrophy, and become weaker and weaker, and then it’s much more easy to injure them. Also, because of the lack of circulation, you don’t get a rapid healing process in the area, so you end up hurting yourself more by babying your hands and trying to protect them from injury. So now that I’ve lifted weights, very light weights, for one year, the symptoms are almost all gone. Even though I do have nerve damage in this nerve here from the carpal tunnel in 1990, which can’t be repaired, the pain from that is all gone, and it feels completely normal. My hands feel strong. So, I’m going to show you the weight-lifting regimen that I’ve done for the last year, and it’s very easy.
The weight lifting regimen I’ve done for carpal tunnel and RSI is something like this. I started out a year ago, using a 5-pound weight. The first thing you do is your stretches, which I demonstrated in a different video. Do all your stretches, get loosened up, make sure the blood is circulating to the region. Then I usually just put my arm on my leg, and it’s a very simple exercise, you’re just going like this. If you’re injured and you have really bad carpal tunnel or RSI symptoms, you want to make sure that the inflammation is down when you do this so you’re not injuring yourself further. But you have to trust that by building muscle in this region and increasing circulation that the healing process will begin to accelerate, and you’ll start to heal and become much stronger and feel better in that area.
When I first started out a year ago, my muscles were really atrophied because I’d been babying my hands and not using them, trying not to hurt them for so many years that this was challenging to do, and now it’s easy. You just do this, and you start to feel a warm sensation here, and when you’re first starting out that’s probably enough, so you’ll do ten repetitions or maybe fifteen. You’ll do three sets of maybe ten to start. Again, if it’s too painful or you feel the burning, then you just do one set, do as many as you can. Then you switch hands. I’m not counting, I’m just demonstrating the way that you do it; it’s pretty simple. Then you switch hands, rest your arm on your leg, and do the same thing on this hand.
So this is the first exercise, it’s very simple. Three sets of ten, let’s say, or three sets of fifteen. After you’ve done that, you do some stretches again, just really simple, just let the muscles rejuvenate a little and get re-oxygenated. You do your second set after about a minute or two of rest, so you’re going to do three sets of these. This would be your second set, you’ll do fifteen or ten on this side and fifteen or ten on this side; again, you put down the weight, and do another rest session, maybe go through your stretches holding each stretch for 30 seconds. I’m just demonstrating the idea. After you’ve done that, that’s the first group of exercises; it’s just one exercise.
The next one is the same thing but opposite, so you’re doing it this way. This one is harder. If you want to use even less than a 5-pound weight to start, that’s fine. You’ll do ten repetitions of the exercise on each hand, three times, so three sets of ten doing this – or fifteen, whatever you’re comfortable doing. Between each set, rest and stretch a little bit. There’s a couple more that are really good, this hammering exercise where it’s just like you’re swinging a hammer down to hit a nail. Three sets of ten this way, three sets of ten this way.
Those are the three main weight-lifting exercises that I do that have absolutely helped more than any other thing; more than acupuncture, more than yoga, more than taking tons of Advil and other anti-inflammatories, more than any other thing including stretching. If I could recommend one thing to people who are suffering from carpal tunnel and RSI, it would be lifting light weights with your forearms and doing that least every other day, I guess forever. I’ve been doing it for a year, and I can’t recommend it enough. Once you get more strength you can go up to 15 pounds; I do 25 pounds at the gym now, I’ve gotten up to 25 which I couldn’t even begin to do that a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to play my horn for a week probably. I keep a 15 and 25 pound weight at home too, so that on the days when I can’t get to the gym, I can still do three sets.
If you only have time for one of the exercises, I would say this is the one to do, just wrist curls. That’s the most important of the three I just showed you, this one being the second most important. If you have time to do two different exercises, this would be the second one, which is reverse wrist curls. I’m just demonstrating the motion, and the way it’s done. Of course, you want to count, and do it evenly on each side.
I’m going to demonstrate a few stretches which have really helped me with my RSI, repetitive strain injury and carpal tunnel. The first one is really common; you put your hand out straight, with your palm facing the ceiling, and hold on to these four fingers to stretch your hand this way. The way I like to do it, which seems to help, is to put my thumb against the back of my wrist to get some leverage. Sometimes I rotate my thumb a little bit. The other thing is to push your hand away from you, and you can really feel a good stretch and try to keep your fingers really straight. The other thing you can do with this stretch is try to twist your arm gently, first to one side and then the other.
When you’re first injured, you have to be really careful with stretching; you don’t want to hurt yourself, so you want to be really gentle with these stretches. Be active in the stretch; in other words, pushing the arm out and elongating all of the muscles, from the shoulder and even the upper back to the fingertips. You do both sides. This is one of the best stretches for loosening the muscles along the inside of the arm, as well as lengthening, over time, the tendons themselves. The next stretch I’m going to show you is the exact opposite; grab onto your wrist this way, and push your arm towards the camera, and stretch. Again, when you first start this, if you’re injured you want to do it really gently.
I’ve actually recovered quite well from my carpal tunnel syndrome, through stretching, exercising, dieting and a bunch of other things which I’ll try to give examples of. So those are two of the stretches. Another good one is the thumb stretch. You just put your hand back like that, grab the thumb with the other thumb and you can grab on to the meat of your arm here for leverage; pull it down. With your fingers out you’ll feel more of a stretch in the forearm. Then you do the same thing on this side – hand back, grab the thumb, fingers for leverage, sometimes you get a little crack. Do this very gently if you’re injured, or if you have inflammation. So that’s a great stretch.
Here’s the last common stretch which I’ve found to be helpful; it’s difficult to do. Turn your hand, start like this and try to rotate it around this way. See how my fingers are like this? Put them around your thumb that way, and the other thumb grabs the meat inside your hand. Again, come back to the front. Now, you’ve turned the wrist this way with the hand, and then you drop the wrist down, and you’ll immediately feel it on the back of the wrist. It stretches the tendons across the back of the wrist pretty radically, so you’ll want to do it really gently at first. Just try to relax into it and hold it for a little while. This is a great one, and it’s quite painful if you haven’t done it, so be gentle. Do the same thing on this hand. Hand back, grab, pull the hand that way and then drop it down. This side is a lot easier for me because I had my carpal tunnel severely in my left hand, and I had an operation in that hand for it in 1990, so it’s been eighteen years and I still suffer from symptoms. But, because of my stretching and exercise plan, I’ve really overcome most of the severe symptoms. That’s a great stretch.
Another good stretch is very common, you probably learn it in physical education in school – stretching the muscles and tendon across here. This helps with all of the circulation and lengthening and everything down in your hands. I’m going to do this a bit faster, so I can get through a bit more. That’s a good one. Another one that’s popular in namaste and yoga, is pushing the palms of the hands together fairly firmly, and then dropping the wrists down. You can hold that for a while, and you can also rotate the wrists this way and bring them up. It’s a pretty good stretch. The other one is the reverse namaste, so you put the hands together behind your back, and kind of walk them up as far as you can go comfortably. I’m not too good at this one, but it does help. So those are the main stretches that I’ve done, in conjunction with exercise and some diet and even some Alexander technique, in order to alleviate my carpal tunnel and repetitive stress injury symptoms. I hope those help. Do them every day.
Let’s start off doing some stretches for our hands. The first stretch I like to do stretches the muscles on the inside of the arm. I make sure I’m out straight, palm facing out, and grab the back of your hand like that. Stretch forward. I often put my thumb here, so I can get some leverage. In my case, I stretch towards the camera, actively. You do this gently if you’re injured, or you have inflammation; in fact, if you have too much inflammation or pain, maybe it would be better not to do any rigorous stretching until that goes away. I would suggest icing, soaking your forearms in ice water in the sink. Soak them in there for as long as you can stand it; it’s pretty painful, but that will reduce the inflammation. I would not recommend Advil or anti-inflammatory drugs; eventually they’ll just wear your liver out, and you won’t get in the habits to overcome the damage.
Then switch to the other hand. Just kind of loosen up your wrist a little bit. Again, you’re actively stretching, like in yoga; you’re pushing the palm from the shoulder all the way. At the same time I’m pulling back on my fingers and trying to keep them straight and point them towards the floor. I’m using the thumb of my other hand as leverage. Again, do this really gently at first. So you hold that for some time, and you should feel the stretch. So that’s the most important stretch, in my opinion. Second most important is the same thing, but stretching out the top, so you do it this way. Again, I’m pushing towards the camera with my wrist, and in this position you’re holding the hand like that, and actively pulling this way, pointing the fingers towards the floor, and pushing the wrist out away from your body.
This one is great, it stretches the tendons and muscles all across the top of the arm. What you want to do is lengthen those muscles over time by stretching them every day with diligence, and over time those muscles will lengthen. If the muscles are longer, you’ll have more circulation and more flexibility and quicker response of the muscles. Oxygen will flow through them, and the healing process will increase because of increased circulation. So again, you do the same thing on this hand. If you’re injured, this one will be really painful across the backs of your hands, so you don’t want to do it too rigorously; do it very gently. Sometimes, if you’re injured, just putting your hand in that position at first and not putting any pressure on the wrist, and then maybe applying just a teeny bit so you can feel the stretch, and maybe doing that for ten days until you can apply a little more pressure.