Exercise and mobilisation interventions for carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common condition where one of two main nerves in the wrist is compressed, resulting in pain to the hand, wrist and sometimes arm, numbness and tingling in the thumb, index and long finger. In advanced cases the muscles of the hand can become weak. The condition affects approximately three per cent of the population, more commonly women. While carpal tunnel syndrome can be treated with surgery, people with mild to moderate symptoms are sometimes offered non-surgical interventions such as exercises or mobilisation. Based on the 16 studies identified, there is limited and very low quality evidence of benefit for all of a diverse collection of exercise and mobilisation interventions for improving symptoms, functional ability (for example hand grip strength), quality of life, and neurophysiologic parameters, and for minimising adverse effects and the need for surgery in people with carpal tunnel syndrome. More research is needed to investigate the effectiveness of exercises and mobilisation for people with carpal tunnel syndrome, especially the sustainability and long-term effects of this treatment.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is limited and very low quality evidence of benefit for all of a diverse collection of exercise and mobilisation interventions for CTS. People with CTS who indicate a preference for exercise or mobilisation interventions should be informed of the limited evidence of effectiveness and safety of this intervention by their treatment provider. Until more high quality randomised controlled trials assessing the effectiveness and safety of various exercise and mobilisation interventions compared to other non-surgical interventions are undertaken, the decision to provide this type of non-surgical intervention to people with CTS should be based on the clinician's expertise in being able to deliver these treatments and patient's preferences.

Read the full abstract...

Non-surgical treatment, including exercises and mobilisation, has been offered to people experiencing mild to moderate symptoms arising from carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). However, the effectiveness and duration of benefit from exercises and mobilisation for this condition remain unknown.


To review the efficacy and safety of exercise and mobilisation interventions compared with no treatment, a placebo or another non-surgical intervention in people with CTS.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Neuromuscular Disease Group Specialised Register (10 January 2012), CENTRAL (2011, Issue 4), MEDLINE (January 1966 to December 2011), EMBASE (January 1980 to January 2012), CINAHL Plus (January 1937 to January 2012), and AMED (January 1985 to January 2012).

Selection criteria: 

Randomised or quasi-randomised controlled trials comparing exercise or mobilisation interventions with no treatment, placebo or another non-surgical intervention in people with CTS.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently assessed searches and selected trials for inclusion, extracted data and assessed risk of bias of the included studies. We calculated risk ratios (RR) and mean differences (MD) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for primary and secondary outcomes of the review. We collected data on adverse events from included studies.

Main results: 

Sixteen studies randomising 741 participants with CTS were included in the review. Two compared a mobilisation regimen to a no treatment control, three compared one mobilisation intervention (for example carpal bone mobilisation) to another (for example soft tissue mobilisation), nine compared nerve mobilisation delivered as part of a multi-component intervention to another non-surgical intervention (for example splint or therapeutic ultrasound), and three compared a mobilisation intervention other than nerve mobilisation (for example yoga or chiropractic treatment) to another non-surgical intervention. The risk of bias of the included studies was low in some studies and unclear or high in other studies, with only three explicitly reporting that the allocation sequence was concealed, and four reporting blinding of participants. The studies were heterogeneous in terms of the interventions delivered, outcomes measured and timing of outcome assessment, therefore, we were unable to pool results across studies. Only four studies reported the primary outcome of interest, short-term overall improvement (any measure in which patients indicate the intensity of their complaints compared to baseline, for example, global rating of improvement, satisfaction with treatment, within three months post-treatment). However, of these, only three fully reported outcome data sufficient for inclusion in the review. One very low quality trial with 14 participants found that all participants receiving either neurodynamic mobilisation or carpal bone mobilisation and none in the no treatment group reported overall improvement (RR 15.00, 95% CI 1.02 to 220.92), though the precision of this effect estimate is very low. One low quality trial with 22 participants found that the chance of being 'satisfied' or 'very satisfied' with treatment was 24% higher for participants receiving instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilisation compared to standard soft tissue mobilisation (RR 1.24, 95% CI 0.89 to 1.75), though participants were not blinded and it was unclear if the allocation sequence was concealed. Another very low-quality trial with 26 participants found that more CTS-affected wrists receiving nerve gliding exercises plus splint plus activity modification had no pathologic finding on median and ulnar nerve distal sensory latency assessment at the end of treatment than wrists receiving splint plus activity modification alone (RR 1.26, 95% CI 0.69 to 2.30). However, a unit of analysis error occurred in this trial, as the correlation between wrists in participants with bilateral CTS was not accounted for. Only two studies measured adverse effects, so more data are required before any firm conclusions on the safety of exercise and mobilisation interventions can be made. In general, the results of secondary outcomes of the review (short- and long-term improvement in CTS symptoms, functional ability, health-related quality of life, neurophysiologic parameters, and the need for surgery) for most comparisons had 95% CIs which incorporated effects in either direction.