Yoga Anatomy: Avoid Hand and Wrist Injuries

human hand anatomy

Think of the number of times your hands and wrists are connected to the earth and carry your weight in a typical Hatha Yoga practice.  Like our feet, our hands frequently become a crucial foundation from which our postures build and express themselves.  Sustaining mindful engagement of our hands will support a life-long practice that is free of negative stress conditions and injuries to the wrist.  Let’s look at some anatomical aspects to give us empowerment and motivation to explore our unique positioning and engagement of the hands and wrists.

The wrists are formed by our 2 forearm bones (the radius and ulna).  They meet dat the wrist joint where there is cluster of small bones (carpal bones).  The carpal bones connect with 5 long bones (metacarpal bones) that make up the palm of the hand.  From there, the metacarpal bones connect to the bones of the fingers (phalanges). The carpal bones form a tunnel through which tendons and nerve tissue pass to service the hand and fingers.  One primary focus of hand engagement is to avoid collapsing into this tunnel and keeping excessive pressure from cascading into that track of muscle and nerve tissue.

One primary focus of hand engagement is to avoid collapsing into this tunnel and keeping excessive pressure from cascading into that track of muscle and nerve tissue.

Another key structural area to consider is the joint connection between the ulna and the carpal bones.  If you turn your hand open (supination of the forearm and wrist), your ulna is the inside forearm bone (medial side).  Unlike the radius (lateral or thumb side) that has a direct joint connection to the carpal bones, the ulna has indirect joint connection.  Instead, there is a piece of fibrocartilage (designed to absorb stress forces) between the ulna and carpal bones along with a network of supporting ligaments – this area is called the Triangular Fibrocartilage Complex.  When we look at the overall differences in joint connection, the radius also has a larger joint surface compared to the ulna.  This gives indication that most people are best served to deliver a greater proportion of their force and energy through the radial side of the wrist than through the ulnar side.

How Does This Play Out in Terms of Applications?

Increase your surface area

It is common in postures like Downward Facing Dog to lift the index finger pad and have the body weight fall into the outside or ulnar side of the wrist – besides shifting force away from the radial side where the wrists are better structured to receive loads, the overall surface area of the hands decreases.  When surface area decreases, pressure increases (from basic physics, Pressure = Force / Surface Area) and ultimately, this increased pressure is directly into the ulnar side of the wrist.  So, by keeping a rooting sensation through the index finger and thumb pads, surface area increases, pressure decreases, and we ease that overall pressure to be carried more properly through the radial side of the wrist and not have it so heavily isolated into the ulnar side of the wrist.

 

Play with rooting and cupping

Hasta Bandha (“hand locks”) can come in many forms and techniques.  While rooting through the index finger and thumb pads, also play with grounding motions through the middle, ring, and pinky fingers.  Explore how you can creating a subtle lift through the palm of the hand – this cupping motion strengthens wrist muscular and takes pressure and collapse out of the carpal tunnel region.  Note: when rooting through the index finger and thumb pads, this will create an inwards spiral of the forearm (pronation).  Be mindful of the kinetic chain effect in your shoulder.  As you pronate the wrist, try to lightly counter-spiral the upper arm bone (external rotation).  This is will enhance shoulder stabilization and integrity.  I find the ideal amount of pronation and shoulder external rotation will cause the crease of my elbow to look diagonally inwards towards my thumb.  If the creases are looking at each other or directly forward towards the middle fingers, there may be too much of one spiral and not enough of the other.

 

Explore spreading of the hands and angles of the wrist

Find a balance of spreading the fingers (abduction) that creates a natural, inherent support for your wrists.  Often, too much finger spreading creates unnecessary tension and rigidity.  No one, specific alignment of the hands is perfect – we are all build differently, so play with how it best feels to align, angle and set the line of the fingers and wrists.

 

Changing hand width can do wonders

When the hands are close, we tend to have force loads bearing down more through the ulnar side of the wrist and into the Triangular Fibrocartilage Complex.  When the hands are moved wider (and it doesn’t take much adjusting), force loads are often shifted more into the radial side.  Give that try – do a small pushup movement with hands close versus wide and notice where the loading is most predominant in the wrist.  From there, try slightly different hand widths in postures like Downward Facing Dog, Crow, and Upward Facing Dog .

 

How can hand width variability enhance these types of postures?

Remember that our bone structures are highly variable along with lifestyle patterns – some of us need to apply care and attention for the carpal tunnel, others for the ulnar side of the wrist, and even some of us have structural conditions in the radial side that require accommodation and modifications.  There is never a need to practice with discomfort.  Move and adjust to find your authentic lines of engagement.  Also consider that Hatha Yoga is a means of applying ‘positive stress’ to our tissues to waken, strengthen, and expand them.  But with any exercise program, a prudent approach to progressive, holistic overload of tissues (whether it be strengthening or stretching) is the incorporation of rest.  Mix up your sequencing and styles of practices so that you can provide periods of rest for your hands and wrists.  Mindfulness and nurturing go a long way in supporting a vibrant practice.

Consider that Hatha Yoga is a means of applying ‘positive stress’ to our tissues to waken, strengthen, and expand them.



Poor Posture and Pressure on your Spine

article migration image 511 under pressure poor posture puts more pressure on your spine jpg

Freddie Mercury was right: we’re under pressure. Nothing can be truer when it comes to your spine. It’s because of simple physics: the pressure or load on your back increases as you move away from a neutral posture. Here are the numbers: Standing straight puts 100mm of pressure on the intervertebral discs of your spine; add a forward bend while flexing or rounding your back and you’ve more than double the pressure, or 220mm. Can you see now why reaching your toes in Uttanasana or any standing forward bend before you’re ready isn’t worth the potential harm to your back?

What poor posture means to the ongoing health of your back?

Over time, poor posture causes the discs between the vertebrae to wear down and lose their ability to cushion and act as shock absorbers. The discs are pushed out towards the back from their normal position which causes bulging or herniated discs. These bulging and worn out discs can cause a more serious problem by increasing the pressure on the spinal nerves and the spinal cord itself. The result is pain in the legs, including sciatica, arms, shoulders, and neck, and problems with muscle innervations, movement patterns and the sensation of temperature, pressure and pain.

These same problems can be worsened when sitting, believe it or not. Sitting, in contrast to standing, actually increases the intradiscal load compared to standing; spinal pressure “sits’ around 140mm pressure. If you slouch (I’m talking to you desk slouchers!), spinal pressure increases to 190mm; add some weight and you’ve put a whopping 275 pounds of pressure on your spine. This is why in certain methods of yoga like Iyengar students learn standing poses before sitting ones as a general rule as they’re considered more advanced.

Sitting for long periods of time can definitely cause back pain or worsen an existing back problem. Sitting is a static posture that increases stress on the entire back, shoulders, arms, and legs, and especially the muscles of the spine. Slouching overstretches spinal ligaments and surrounding structures of the spine and nerves, blood supply is interrupted and the back muscles are overstretched.

The Solution

If you’re not a yogi yet but find yourself slouching or sitting for long periods of time during the day, your yoga can be as simple as doing the following:

  1. Getting up periodically to stand up and take the pressure off your spine

  2. Sit back into your chair so your back is supported. In yoga postures, ground evenly into your support and allow your spine to straighten up

  3. Use a lumbar roll between your lumbar or lower back and your chair. To judge the proper size of the roll, sit back in your chair, place your forearm behind your lower back between it and your chair and lean back. Your forearm is approximately the size of a lumbar roll. This works when driving too.

  4. Move! Joints don’t have much blood flow. Joints get nutrition in and waste out by physical movement. Move freely in your chair instead of sitting still for hours at a time.

For you yogis, body awareness is key to minimizing the pressure on your back. I’m not saying never practice a forward bend or a seated pose but rather know how to practice them safely. Even a seemingly friendly pose like Savasana can do harm. Sure, while lying down you’re at the lowest end of the spinal load spectrum at 25mm. As a teacher, I ask my students to roll to the side before sitting up not simply to avoid feeling dizzy and lightheaded but also to reduce the pressures on the spine. For the record, resting on your side applies 75mm pressure on your back, which is quite a bit less than pulling yourself straight up from lying flat on your back.

So, the take home message is: do the work in other poses which don’t load the spine first to lengthen your leg muscles and hamstrings, and strengthen your back before you throw yourself into a forward bend. Realize which types of poses are right for you. Gentle flexion of the spine isn’t for everybody and that’s ok. Once your body is ready, you’ll be reaping the benefits of practicing Uttanasana instead of causing harm to our back.

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