Is your workout causing you wrist pain?

Athletes and fitness buffs were not warned about one thing when they started training: wrist pain can happen after intense workouts. And in the sports industry, it’s CrossFitters and weightlifters that are at risk of experiencing it. Primarily because crossfit and weightlifting consists of exercises that put a lot of stress on the hands and wrists.

man doing a plank exercise with dumbbells

You might feel wrist pain when you do push ups or a plank. You can feel wrist pain when doing a deadlift. While a certain amount of soreness and yes – even pain – is expected from intense training, these usually go away after your workout. Things get problematic when there is wrist pain even when you’re doing day-to-day activities.

What causes wrist pain in weightlifters and crossfitters? When is wrist pain too much? Also, are recovery methods such as using a massage gun effective or safe in treating wrist pain in athletes? So many questions, answers follow.

Why is wrist pain prevalent in the gym?

Before we go into specifics of wrist pain among cross fit and weightlifting athletes, let’s do a quick rundown of  what causes wrist pain. The wrist – just to be clear – is one of the more vulnerable joints in the body. It’s a joint that has many small bones which can compress together when the wrist isn’t used properly.

man holding his wrist in pain

Keeping the wrist bones together are several ligaments; there are tendons that link the fingers to the muscles in the forearm, plus the nerves that run through everything which sends and sends signals to and from the brain. The hands and wrists are a marvel of natural bioengineering, to be honest. It can take strain but too much causes compression on the wrists’ structure, which leads to irritation, inflammation and pain.

Illustration of the wrist tendons and arm muscles
Image Credit: Medical News Today

It’s also worth noting that no muscle stabilizes the wrists. Not directly, anyway. Whatever support the wrists get comes from the passive structures that surround it – the ligaments, bones and cartilage that connect to the muscles in the arm and hand. This means that the wrist suffers the most when there is lack of strength, or overuse in the arm and hand muscles.

Wrist Pain in CrossFit: A Common Problem

‍It’s quite an amazing sight inside a crossfit gym. You see athletes of all levels doing pull-ups, ring dips and a lot of other intense exercises. What you don’t see is the huge amount of stress that’s being put on an athlete’s wrists in just about every CrossFit routine. Sure, other sports can strain the wrists but CrossFitters have a higher risk of getting wrist injuries due to the extreme nature of the sport.

man lifting a truck tire

How is CrossFit Causing Wrist Pain?

Trying out new moves – Although this is more common among people doing  crossfit for the first time, doing new movements also causes wrist pain in trained athletes. While strength and motor patterns develop over time, adding new movements to your exercise routine or increasing the intensity of workouts can put strain on the wrists.

Wrong Form
–  Not even trained athletes are immune to this. Whether it’s trying out new moves, or working out for longer periods of time or rushing through a workout, a wrong form during intense crossfit exercises can add strain to the wrists and cause pain. When the form is wrong you’re not engaging your muscles correctly which is important in keeping your balance AND supporting your body weight when doing a plank or a headstand. Same goes when you have to hold a heavy bar overhead.

Repetitive Microtrauma – In other words – overuse. Overuse is a common problem among trained athletes. They constantly push themselves to do harder training and often “train through the pain”. Overuse happens when the muscles, tendons, bones and ligaments aren’t able to keep up with the strain put on them. Overtime, microtrauma from each intense workout piles up and this is when you start to feel pain.

So when is wrist pain TOO much?

There’s a huge difference between crossfit – related wrist and muscle soreness and an actual injury. While post-workout pain sorts itself out after a few days of rest, you need to know the signs of wrist injury to get medical attention right away:

  1. Persistent dull ache even after the activity or rest
  2. Feeling or worse – hearing – a popping sound followed by pain
  3. Bruising around the hands and wrists
  4. Stabbing pain in the wrist
  5. Swelling in the wrist and forearm area

Weightlifting and wrist pain: A love-hate relationship

An athlete’s success in lifting weights depends a lot on the eight small bones, connecting tendons and ligaments that make up the wrist joints of each hand.

Man lifting heavy weights

Beginners to Olympic weightlifters depend on the capacity of their wrists as a link between the load in their hands to the muscles in the arms, legs and torso. The wrist does a lot to transfer the physical force needed to complete every single lift.

So what causes wrist pain after lifting weights?

Surprisingly, wrist pain and injury aren’t as common in weightlifting as it is in CrossFit. A study published in 2018 stated that less than 5% of lifting injuries involve the wrists. Weightlifters are more likely to complain of lower back and shoulder pains.

weightlifter doing squat lift

Although not a common issue among lifters, wrist pain STILL occurs in athletes. After all, pro athletes regularly increase the intensity of their training. A common cause is lifting overly heavy weights that bring on sharp pain, although there are certain cases of chronic pain that are brought about by overuse.

Other injuries that cause wrist pain in weightlifters include:

  1. TFC injury – Which is a tearing of the Triangular Fibrocartilage Complex tissue, located on the back of the wrist. This limits a weightlifter’s range of motion.
  2. Stress fractures formed at the wrist bones
  3. Strained ligaments
  4. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome which develops from pressure on a nerve in the palm. This leads to weakened wrists and numbness in the hands.

What can you do to avoid wrist pain after weightlifting?

Not having proper form while lifting weights is the major cause of wrist pain. Make sure that you have a trainer or gym buddy checking your form for every lift. If you prefer not to have someone check your form, lift weights in front of gym mirrors, so you can correct your form before doing a lift.

Remember, it’s normal to feel some soreness around your wrists and forearms after lifting weights. Rest, Ice Compression and Elevation (RICE) is the recommended treatment and should relieve any post-weightlifting pains you’re experiencing. On the other hand, call your doctor if the pain persists even after resting or taking medications.

Recovering from wrist pain

Your wrist hurts because physical activities have either stretched or torn the ligaments that connect the bones in your wrist. Sprains from exercises usually take 2 weeks to heal, but may take longer depending on the severity.

Unless the wrist pain is so severe to require medical attention, you can recover faster and regain strength in your wrist with good old home treatment and massage. Here’s some ideas on how to fix wrist pain at home.

Rest, ice packs and compression sleeves

photo of a man's hand wearing a wrist compression sleeve

  • Keep your wrist elevated as much as possible. Use a pillow to prop up your arm when you apply ice on your wrists, keeping it above heart level to reduce swelling.
  • Ice packs must be used on your wrist for up to 20 minutes at a time every 2 hours, or until the pain and swelling goes down. Don’t forget to put a thin piece of cloth between your skin and the ice pack.
  • Wrap your wrist in an elastic bandage or compression sleeve and keep it on for the next 36 hours. Make sure the sleeve isn’t too tight to cause tingling or numbness in your hands and fingers.
  • If your doctor prescribed medication, take them exactly as directed. If you’re not prescribed anything, ask your doctor if you can take over the counter meds instead.
  • Try not to move your injured wrist as much as possible during this period.

Percussive therapy massage gun for wrist pain: Yay or Nay?

Percussive therapy (or percussion therapy or vibration therapy) provides many of the same benefits as a deep tissue massage. A deep tissue massage gun, when used properly, helps ease muscle soreness after intense crossfit exercises or weightlifting sessions.

Hydragun sports recovery device being used on someone's body

However, despite the ability of percussive therapy to ease workout-related pain and soreness, there are certain types of wrist pain and injury you should avoid using it for until you are completely recovered. Wrist sprains top that list. Here’s a couple of reasons why:

  • Wrist sprains are caused by stretched or torn ligaments that connect the bones in this part of your body (we’ve said this about three times now). As we mentioned earlier your wrist doesn’t have a muscle directly supporting it, which is why it gets the most strain during crossfit or weightlifting. In short, any massage treatment to a sprained wrist must be held off until full recovery is achieved to avoid further damage.

  • A massage gun is a powerful device – it doesn’t vibrate against your skin. It pummels it like a jackhammer to deliver vibrations effectively to your muscles and improve blood flow. Not really something that a sprained wrist can take. This is also the reason why you only need to “float” the gun across your body – not hold it in one place for too long.

Okay, but does percussive therapy help at all?

The answer is – Yes, percussive therapy does help with post workout pains and soreness in your wrists. It relaxes the muscles on your forearm, allowing for better blood flow through your wrist and hands.

Close up photo of the Hydragun sports recovery tool

The improved blood flow helps tone down swelling and ease pain, and regular use helps strengthen the muscles. Just don’t use it right away when you’ve got an actual wrist injury. Wait until you are fully recovered from and consult your doctor first.

For your usual post crossfit and weightlifting recovery, here’s some tips on how to use a massage gun properly on your wrists:

  • Start with the lowest speed setting. This would give your hands and wrists a nice “warm up”. You can increase intensity and speed depending on how comfortable you’re feeling.
  • “Float” the massage gun across your arms, hands and wrists. Do not focus on one area for too long, especially in your wrist. Remember, your wrists cannot withstand as much intense massage action as your back or thigh.
  • Move your forearm and wrist into angles so you wouldn’t miss massaging parts of your wrist and arms. Don’t use the device for more than 15 minutes at a time.

Learning how your workout is doing you more bad than good is important

CrossFit and Weightlifting are two of the most intense and demanding types of sport. Athletes power through exercise and training that put so much strain on the body. And while completing these exercises is great for performance, a painful wrist can set an athlete’s training back for several days or even weeks.

Man sitting down and holding two dumbbells

Equally important is to learn how and when to use a muscle massage gun to speed up recovery and build strength in your arms and wrists. After all, the stronger your arm muscles are, the more protected your wrists become from pain and injury.

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