A speedy return to normal activities after carpal tunnel surgery is a top priority for anyone on the fence about when or if to have surgery. Depending on the type of procedure that you have, the recovery window varies. In most cases, the traditional open surgery has a longer recovery than a minimally invasive endoscopic procedure1, simply because the incision area is in the palm versus the wrist.

“The typical recovery time for a traditional open carpal tunnel is around 6 weeks for a return to full activities,” says orthopedic surgeon Joel Christian Klena, MD, chief of the Division of Hand and Microvascular Surgery for the Geisinger Musculoskeletal Institute in Danville, Pennsylvania. “With the SmartRelease endoscopic surgery, the recovery time is easily cut in half. Most patients return to full activities by 3 to 4 weeks.”

Your surgeon may tell you to limit your activities at the start of your carpal tunnel surgery recovery, which may help to minimize some of your discomforts as you heal. There are two types of pain commonly experienced by people who have carpal tunnel surgery: Incisional pain and pillar pain. When surgeons perform open surgery, they make a longer incision that goes through part of the palm, which contains nerves and muscles. Endoscopic SmartRelease surgery requires a much smaller incision2 that doesn’t affect the sensitive palm.

 “Incisional pain… is decreased when performing the surgery with the SmartRelease system,” Klena says.

Patients may experience pillar pain at the base of the palm3 after surgery. It’s more common among people who have open surgery than endoscopic surgery and is likely in response to the release during the procedure.

“Descriptions vary amongst surgeons as to its cause,” Klena says. “In my opinion, pillar pain results directly from the release of the roof of the carpal tunnel itself – the transverse carpal ligament – and also from the release of any structures above it. Particularly when any muscle is present above the transverse carpal ligament, cutting that muscle in an open procedure increases pillar pain.”

Carpal Tunnel Surgery Recovery Timeline

The first phase of recovery from carpal tunnel surgery is the immediate post-recovery stage. During this phase, your surgeon should ask you to avoid strenuous, repetitive activity with your hand so that your wrist rests as you recover. Your surgeon may also tell you not to lift more than a few pounds. Early on, you may need some medication for pain relief, especially with the open procedure, but over-the-counter drugs may be all you need with the endoscopic procedure.

After a check-in with your surgeon a week or two after surgery, you may have your stitches removed and receive instructions for recovery exercises. Your doctor may recommend that you move your hand, fingers, and wrist as much as you feel comfortable doing, which may aid your recovery. In addition, you may be able to return to work unless your job requires you to perform repetitive motions with your wrist. Patients who have received endoscopic surgery are more likely to return to work earlier than those with open surgery4.

As more time passes, your surgeon may gradually allow you to return to your usual routine, including activities that put weight on your wrist, such as working out at the gym. For some people, this may be allowed within several weeks; for others, it may take months. As a general rule, people who have endoscopic SmartRelease surgery can resume activities sooner5.

To ensure a long-term favorable outcome, follow your surgeon’s instructions during each stage of your carpal tunnel surgery recovery timeline.  

Carpal Tunnel Surgery Recovery Exercises

Early in your recovery, your surgeon may suggest exercises to help improve your range of motion, strength, and coordination.

Wrist stretches6 may help to improve the range of motion after surgery. With your fingers together, gently bend your wrist forward. Then reverse the movement, gently bending your wrist while separating your fingers. Repeat ten times.

Tendon glides7 may help with strength and range of motion. Hold your hand upright and make a fist. Next, unbend the joints nearest your palm so that only the middle and upper joints remain bent. Straighten your fingers, then bend only the joints nearest your palm. Finally, straighten your fingers so that they point straight upward. Repeat ten times.

Squeezing a stress ball or piece of putty may also help you strengthen your hand and wrist.