Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Why Do My Wrists Hurt During my Workouts? Part 1

One of the questions I'm most frequently asked is why yoga makes our wrists hurt so much in yoga, pilates, planks, and other movements.   First thing, let's look at the small bones of the wrist and what's going on in there.

Can you tell I'm excited about my new model skeleton?

Can you tell I'm excited about my new model skeleton?

Our wrist is a somewhat delicate joint, at least in comparison to the foot, which has a very similar structure.  The eight carpal bones are very small and fit between the radius/ulna and the metacarpals.  (The phalanges are what we think of as the finger bones, but clearly, fingers start from the wrist, not the knuckles!)

We flex the wrist to type and text, we extend the wrist to do plank and down dog.

We flex the wrist to type and text, we extend the wrist to do plank and down dog.

It also means that we may not have the same range in the opposite direction that some people do.

It also means that we may not have the same range in the opposite direction that some people do.

There are many different styles of yoga, but the many flow styles these days emphasize vinyasas or the sequence of plank, chaturanga, to upward facing dog.  Even if those terms don't mean anything to you, think plank to pushup, repeated over and over, which occurs in many fitness formats.  So why does this sequence hurt so many folks?  Well, most musicians (and normal people) keep their wrists in partial flexion, whether they are desk bound, using their phone, keyboardists, string players, woodwind players, teachers, etc.  That partial flexion adds up over the years, especially if we never use the opposite range of motion- wrist extension.  The tissues of the palm, hand, and forearm, stay partially contracted, and then limit our range of extension.  One day, you decide to try yoga, which demands a lot of wrist extension plus you decide to LOAD your whole body weight on top of it, and then you wonder why things hurt.     Staying in one position for a long time (like 15-20 years, many hours a day) keeps the muscles and connective tissue in that position- making it difficult to adapt to the opposite shape of extension.

So there’s two remedies:

1) build the range of motion in extension, and 2) progressively load those tissues to build up strength. If we never use our wrists in extension, we need to gently progress with range of motion and weight, rather than putting 130-230 pounds on our hands out of the blue. That means you can’t go from zero to full plank/push up hour without some gradual change to optimize adaptation.

My wrists are sometimes tight- you can see that it's hard for my thumb to fully rest on the floor without a small bend..

My wrists are sometimes tight- you can see that it's hard for my thumb to fully rest on the floor without a small bend..

Let's get more specific- planks require full wrist extension (meaning that the distance between the back of the hand and forearm is 90 degrees) whereas down dog is more of a 60 degree angle, depending on many factors.  

Notice that the angle between the forearm and wrist is acute, whereas the other is a right angle?

Notice that the angle between the forearm and wrist is acute, whereas the other is a right angle?

Imagefrom the Melt Method, which has a terrific hand and foot massage kit!

Imagefrom the Melt Method, which has a terrific hand and foot massage kit!

So then, imagine repeating full extension over and over again when you don't actually have that full range, or you only have it on one side. In addition, it’s been days, weeks or months since you’ve done yoga, so your body hasn’t been loaded this way. 

First, let's test the range you have in your wrists right now, shall we?  Bring your forearms together in front of your chest, then allow your wrists to extend comfortably.  Don't force it.  Do your wrists naturally open to a 180 degree angle?  Or is one side more acute (hello left hand for me!)?  That explains why full extension might aggravate things!  I'll talk a bit more about poses that are wrist intensive next time, and how to help your wrists out, and possibly gain more range in the long run.

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