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Physical Therapy for Radial Tunnel Syndrome – Information, Exercises, and More

You’ve been diagnosed with radial tunnel syndrome and you want reliefyesterday

Maybe your doctor has already prescribed a splint, the standard care for radial tunnel syndrome. But you know there has to be more you can do to relieve your pain. 

The good news is that many people who suffer from pain caused by radial tunnel syndrome have found relief through physical therapy and exercises. 

Keep reading, and we’ll share with you all the ins and outs of radial tunnel syndrome — what it is, why you have pain, and ways to help relieve that pain.

What is Radial Tunnel Syndrome?

Radial tunnel syndrome occurs when the radial nerve in the arm is compressed. 

The radial nerve travels through the radial tunnel. The radial tunnel is called a tunnel because it is a narrow area through which the radial nerve passes around the elbow and through the forearm to the hand. 

This tunnel is made of the surrounding muscles, tendons, and ligaments. 

We’ll get deeper into the causes below, but some causes include:

  • Injury
  • Repetitive movements
  • Ganglia
  • Bone tumors
  • Inflammation 

The weakness and pain in your forearm are usually experienced when you try to straighten your wrist and fingers. 

What Causes Radial Tunnel Syndrome?

While radial tunnel syndrome is usually caused by repetitive, forceful motion such as pushing, pulling, or twisting with the hand, there are other causes as well such as direct injury to the outside of the elbow. 

Let’s take a look at the anatomy associated with this condition.

A Quick Look At Your Anatomy

The radial nerve runs down the underside of your arm and controls movement of the triceps muscle, which is located at the posterior (back) of the upper arm. 

This nerve is responsible for extending the wrist and fingers. It also controls sensation in part of the hand. 

When this nerve becomes compressed, it can result in radial tunnel syndrome. This is why this condition is also known as Radial Nerve Entrapment

Most Common Causes

Any time the radial nerve is compressed anywhere along its length, it can cause pain. The tunnel at the elbow is one of the most common spots the nerve gets compressed (or pinched).

The most common cause is overuse, which can cause inflammation. 

Over time, repeating the same movement such as …

  • Twisting the arm
  • Twisting the wrist
  • Bending the wrist
  • Gripping with the hand

 

… can cause radial tunnel syndrome. 

This can result from playing sports or completing repetitive movements at work. Even typing repetitively can lead to this condition. 

Some common jobs that can result in radial tunnel syndrome include:

  • Sewer or knitter
  • Baker
  • Cashier
  • Hair stylist
  • Musician
  • Industrial worker
  • Assembly line worker 

A few less common causes include:

  • Injury
  • Ganglia
  • Bone tumors

Radial Tunnel Syndrome Symptoms

“A dull aching pain.” 

That’s how many people describe how it feels to have radial tunnel syndrome. Although reported less often, some patients describe the pain as cutting, piercing, or stabbing. 

This pain is at most often felt on the:

  • Top of the forearm
  • Outside of the elbow
  • Back of the hand

The pain usually comes when you straighten your wrist or fingers. 

Treatment For Radial Tunnel Syndrome 

What’s the best way to treat radial tunnel syndrome? 

You just want to make the pain go away. 

First things first — rest.

It’s always recommended to take a break from the activity that is causing the symptoms. 

A Doctor of Physical Therapy may perform a radial tunnel syndrome test to determine the best treatment. 

Aside from rest, common treatments include:

  • Over-the-counter medications to reduce swelling
  • Steroid injections to relieve inflammation and pressure on the radial nerve
  • Wrist and/or elbow splints to reduce irritation of the radial nerve
  • Exercise 

The goal of treatment is to prevent your symptoms from returning. This might result in changing activities or certain job duties. 

Special job accommodations might be needed — such as taking more breaks and avoiding heavy pulling and pushing if possible.

For sports injuries, it’s important to perform strength and flexibility exercises before playing. 

At night, wearing a splint while you sleep can keep the arm in a position that prevents pinching the nerve. 

Is Surgery An Option For Radial Tunnel Syndrome?

Doctors recommend surgery for this ailment only when time and nonoperative therapy fails. 

It’s uncommon to have surgery for radial tunnel syndrome. If it’s performed, it would usually be done as an outpatient surgery. 

This operation is called Radial Tunnel Release. The surgeon divides all compressive sites within the radial tunnel. This makes the radial tunnel bigger so that the radial nerve has more space. 

New tissue can then grow across the split and eventually builds a permanently larger tunnel. 

Radial Tunnel Syndrome Physical Therapy – Will PT Help?

A strong, resounding … 

Yes.

Specific exercises to help the radial nerve slide through the tunnel at the elbow can help greatly improve your symptoms. Stretching and strengthening the muscles of the forearm can also help to relieve your pain and tenderness. 

Your physical therapist will give you tips on how to rest the elbow and perform activities without extra strain. Ice or electrical stimulation to ease pain, are sometimes used as a treatment. 

Exercises are used to gradually stretch and strengthen the forearm and muscles. 

Best Radial Tunnel Syndrome Exercises

While it’s always recommended that you seek a professional’s assistance when adding in-home exercises for an ailment, there are some common stretches that some physical therapists may prescribe.

Wrist Extension Stretch For Radial Tunnel Syndrome

For this stretch:

  • Straighten your arm and bend your wrist back as if signaling someone to “stop.” 
  • Use your opposite hand to gently apply pressure across the palm and pull it toward you until you feel a stretch on the inside of your forearm. 
  • Hold for 15 seconds
  • Repeat 5 times, then move to the other arm
  • Repeat throughout the day

Wrist Flexion Stretch For Radial Tunnel Syndrome

For this one, begin by straightening your arm with your palm facing down. 

Then:

  • Bend your wrist so that your fingers point down
  • Gently pull your hand toward your body until you can feel a stretch on the outside of your forearm
  • Hold for 15 seconds
  • Repeat 5 times and move to the other arm

Wrist Supination For Radial Tunnel Syndrome

This stretch can help you to grip items pain-free, such as a screwdriver.

Directions:

  • Bend your elbow at the side of your body with your palm facing the ceiling
  • Use your opposite hand to hold at your wrist and gently turn your forearm further into the palm-up position until you feel a stretch
  • Hold for 15 seconds
  • Repeat 5 times and move to the other arm

 

Radial Nerve Glides For Radial Tunnel Syndrome

Nerve glides help to restore nerve motion and will help the radial nerve glide normally to help release pressure on the nerve. 

You want to begin this one by standing with your arms down at your sides. 

Ready?

  • Drop your shoulder down and reach your fingers toward the floor
  • Rotate your arm internally (thumb toward your body) and flex your wrist with the palm up
  • Gently tilt your head away from the side you are stretching
  • Raise your arm up and away from your body as you continue to flex your wrist and tilt your head
  • Hold each position of the glide for 3-5 seconds

How In Motion O.C. Can Help With Radial Tunnel Syndrome

Treating radial tunnel syndrome can be a frustrating and stressful process. Especially as it’s often misdiagnosed.

Thankfully, we’ve got your back — or elbow.

We’re rated the #1 physical therapist on Yelp in the US for a reason. Rest assured that we have helped many patients find relief and hope. They’ve been able to get their lives back on track. Our facility and programs are one-of-a-kind, and we’re dedicated to your healing. 

Give us a call today for an assessment. You’ll be glad you did.

In Motion O.C.