Nerve injuries are treated in various ways and exercises are one option. Before looking at exercises for a radial nerve injury it’s useful to look at what the nerve does and how it gets injured.
What Is the Radial Nerve?
The radial nerve has motor and sensory function and it originates in the neck. The nerve runs down the underside of the arm behind the brachial artery. The radial nerve supplies the lateral and medial heads of the triceps muscle before passing through the radial tunnel.
As the nerve exits the radial tunnel at the elbow it enters the forearm and divides into superficial and deep branches. The superficial branch travels towards the wrist and gives sensory innervation to the thumb, first four fingers and the back of the hand.
The deep branch of the radial nerve passes through the supinator muscle and continues down the forearm. The radial nerve travels to the wrist where it’s responsible for wrist and finger extension.
How Does the Radial Nerve Get Injured?
The radial nerve gets injured in various ways and the two main injuries are a severed nerve or a compressed nerve. The nerve may be severed due to a fracture or penetrating trauma. There have been cases where the radial nerve has been damaged during surgery.
If the nerve is severed it will be reconstructed by a surgeon by end-to-end suturing or grafting. Following the surgery some rehabilitation is needed to strengthen muscles and the nerve. Medical studies have concluded post operative exercise is an important part of nerve rehabilitation.
Radial nerve compression due to direct pressure on the nerve is one of the most common injuries. Radial nerve compression at the elbow is called radial tunnel syndrome. Repetitive elbow movement, a poor sleeping position and playing sports are all causes of radial tunnel syndrome.
Symptoms associated with radial nerve compression include:
- Pain in the forearm, hand and fingers
- Numbness and tingling
- Inability to flex wrist and fingers
- Weak grip
- Wrist drop
When the radial nerve is compressed there are different ways to treat it. Medication including anti-inflammatory drugs are used to reduce swelling and steroids are sometimes used. Decompression surgery is carried out when non-invasive treatments are not effective.
Doing some exercises to stretch a compressed radial nerve is another way to untrap it.
What Are the Best Exercises for a Radial Nerve Injury?
The exercises for radial nerve injury do not actually stretch the nerve but they enable it to move easily. When the nerve can slide between bone, muscle and other tissue it’s less likely to get compressed.
Before doing any radial nerve exercises it’s advisable to consult a physician or qualified physiotherapist. Although the exercises may help an injured nerve some care is needed. Too much stretching could cause further damage to the injured radial nerve.
None of the following exercises require any special equipment and they can all be done in the home.
To exercise the radial nerve doing some simple stretches is one of the easiest ways. To stretch the radial nerve extend the arm down the body with the wrist rotated outwards. Place the back of the hand with fingertips touching your thigh.
This exercise can be modified by placing the palms against a wall with the arms extended. Hands should be directly in line with the shoulders and fingertips facing down. Both of these exercise are an effective way to stretch the radial nerve.
Supinator Muscle Massage
The supinator muscle is a cause of radial nerve entrapment and this simple exercise helps to free the nerve. Supinator muscle massage is done by placing the thumb in the pit of the elbow with palm facing up. Below the fold of the elbow pinch the flesh with the thumb and middle finger.
Put pressure on the muscle with the middle finger and try to press against the bone. When you hit a spot that is sore or tender you should keep the pressure on until you feel the pain easing. This exercise can be repeated in and around the area if there are other areas of pain or tenderness.
Radial Nerve Glide
Nerve glides (neural flossing) are stretching exercises to help nerves move freely through tissue. The exercise reduces inflammation around the nerve to decompress it and aid recovery.
To perform a radial nerve glide you should extend the affected arm at a angle of 90 degrees with your palm facing the floor. Extend the fingers and begin to flex your wrist up and down. To stretch the nerve more it helps to tilt your head in the opposite direction to the extended arm.
Aim to do ten stretches before resting and then repeat the exercise two to three times per day.
A second way to do a radial nerve glide is to let the affected arm hand at your side. Keeping the elbows straight and with palms facing back slowly move your wrist back and forth. Your other hand needs to be placed on the shoulder to ensure that it stays down and pushed back.
You should do this exercise twice a day and aim to do 15 repetitions at a time.
Radial Nerve Tensioners
Radial nerve tensioners are an effective way to give the nerve a workout. Sit on a chair and place the palm of your hand of the affected arm in front of your face. Slowly extend the arm to your side and reach behind your back with the palm of your hand face up.
When reaching behind your back turn your head and look the opposite way to maximize the stretch. Return to the starting position and repeat the exercise ten times. When doing this exercise do not overstretch to avoid straining muscles and tendons in the arms.
When the radial nerve is compressed one of the symptoms is wrist drop and this ball squeeze exercise strengthens the wrist muscles. Take a flexible ball that can be held in one hand and slowly squeeze it 20-25 times. Take a few minutes to rest an repeat the exercise a further two times.
This exercise will not decompress the radial nerve but it may stretch it a little. The ball squeeze is a good way to improve weak grip which results from radial nerve injury. The action of squeezing the ball aids blood flow which is beneficial when nerves are healing.
Radial Nerve Sliders
Radial nerve sliders are a great way to stretch the nerve when it’s compressed. Take a towel and place it behind your back and hold the bottom of the towel with the affected arm. Grab the top of the towel and extend your top arm as far as possible so that it pulls up the lower hand.
The motion is the same as drying your back after showering and 15-20 repetitions gives the nerve adequate exercise.
Radial Nerve Crossover
The radial nerve crossover is another simple exercise to stretch out the nerve. Begin by sitting on a chair and extending both arms out to the front. Clasp your hands together and link fingers to prevent your hands from separating.
Slowly lift your hands above your head and aim to reach back slightly without stretching too far or for too long. When you feel a slight pull return to the start position and repeat ten times.
Radial Nerve Ball Passes
Radial nerve ball passes are done to stretch the nerve due to moving and stretching both arms. Take a small to medium sized ball and hold it in one hand. Pass the ball around your back and transfer it to the other hand.
Bring the ball around to your front and pass it back to the original hand. Repeat the exercise 15-20 times before resting.
Using massage therapy to treat an injury to the radial nerve has a number of benefits. Massage reduces swelling to ease direct pressure that’s compressing the nerve. Lymph fluid needs to drain away so that it doesn’t compress the nerve and massage aids drainage.
The radial nerve needs a supply of oxygen and nutrients to stay healthy and massage therapy improves circulation. Blood carries oxygen and essential vitamins and minerals to nerves. When the radial nerve is getting an adequate supply of blood it’s more likely to heal following an injury.
Scar tissue causes nerve compression due to it not being as elastic as normal tissue. If fibrous tissue is putting direct pressure on the radial nerve it can be broken up with massage.
All of the radial nerve exercises are going to help when the nerve is injured. Even when receiving other treatments for a radial nerve injury the exercises provide additional therapy. Keeping the nerve in good condition is essential in order for it to function correctly.