Forearms 101

Daydreaming in jr. high social studies class I used to admire my forearms, thinking I would make a pretty good body builder. At the time I thought I had some nice muscle definition. Clearly I was just a dorky jr. high kid. Right after this phase I wanted to be an accountant and look where I am now – the burly forearms won!?

In honor of well-defined forearm muscles everywhere and my former daydreaming days, I humbly submit to you, dear reader, this primer on the forearms. Forearms house the bulk of muscles that work our hands and fingers. If all of our hand muscles were in our hands, each hand would be about the size of a catcher’s mitt. Although there are some fancy specialized muscles, the forearms are pretty straight forward. The flexors on one side flex the fingers and wrist (think curling in the fingers and wrist). The extensors on the other side extend the fingers and wrist (think of a police officer directing traffic showing “STOP” with her outstretched hand) (Or think of the Supremes’ hit “Stop in the Name of Love” and feel the Motown wave washing over you!).

There are other muscles that help us perform all the exact motions that make our arms and hands so amazing, but I’m just going to focus on flexors and extensors today.

Why even write about the forearms? Don’t they kind of take care of themselves? When people come in for massage they want to focus time on massage for the weary back and neck. But wait! When I get to the forearms I often hear, “I didn’t realize my arms were so sore.” Yes, they work hard for us and we want to take care of them.

Muscle mapquest: see the photos above. The Trail Guide to the Body by Andrew Biel (Books of Discovery 2005) describes the forearms this way: “As a group [the extensors of the wrist and hand] are smaller and more sinewy than the forearm flexors.” p. 143 “…the flexors are thicker and more pliable than the extensors.” p. 148 It may be obvious, but these muscle groups are antagonists to each other. When one side is working, the other side is not. Ideally there should be balance in the strength between the 2 groups.

Why should I care, Susan? I argue that many of us use these forearm muscles more than we realize. And we often overburden them without realizing it. Further we pay them no heed unless they really complain, which is often a little late for their health. Tasks like typing & mousing use these muscles repetitively. Activities like playing piano, drums, violin, guitar and many other instruments tax them.  Racquet sports like tennis & racquetball give them quite a workout. Any activities where you are gripping an object repetitively or with a lot of exertion will use these muscles. Rock climbing comes to mind too! Ever heard of carpal tunnel syndrome? Well that has a lot to do with how we use these muscles because the tendons to these muscles dive under the flexor retinaculm and can cause inflammation in that carpel tunnel. See the quote at the end for more information.

Here are 3 strategies for taking care of these workhorses of daily living. They can be used together or separately.

Ice bath: On days when you are really giving your forearm muscles a challenge, you can treat them to an ice bath. To do so, fill up your kitchen sink with cold water. Add a couple trays of ice cubes. Dip your arms into the water up to and including the elbows. Keep your arms in for as long as you can tolerate the cold. Raise your arms out of the water and let them warm up or dry them off. Dip again several times. This takes down inflammation caused by repetitive use. It also flushes blood through the muscles by alternately constricting and dilating the blood vessels in the area.

Self massage: These muscles are fairly easy to massage oneself. Lay 1 arm flat on a counter, desktop or tabletop. Apply a small amount of lotion so you can glide over the muscles. With your other hand shaped like a fist, apply pressure with the back of the knuckles as you slide from wrist to elbow. For extra benefit alternate between making a fist and stretching the wrist and fingers back of the arm being massaged while you slide up with the working hand. Start on the more fleshy flexor side and then change to the extensor side. You’ll find it’s a little more bony on the extensor side, but feels fabulous.

Helpful tools: There are several helpful tools on the market that can help you take care of your arms. Here are 3 of my favorites: Roleo, Armaid, The Stick. If you want to purchase the Roleo through Gaiam or The Stick, click on my affiliate link first over at Foothill Health Dialogues. I’ll get a little kick-back that helps pay for maintaining that site. (Thanks!)

Here’s what one of my favorite authors has to say on the topic:

Median nerve entrapment, especially in the carpel tunnel, is one of the most common upper-extremity injuries. While the carpal tunnel is the likely site for median nerve entrapment, there are at least half a dozen potential sites of nerve entrapment between the neck and hand. In many cases, a carpal tunnel syndrome becomes more symptomatic than it normally would because there is at least one additional location of nerve compromise along the median nerve’s path. Even a partial nerve entrapment can complicate the condition.

Traditional treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome often only focus attention on the carpal tunnel itself at the base of the hand. The contribution of nerve entrapments in other locations can be overlooked. An advantage of massage therapy treatment is the amount of time the practitioner spends with the client and the subsequent thoroughness of soft-tissue treatment that can be applied throughout the entire upper extremity. Extensive massage treatment along the entire path of the median nerve helps make sure any of these potential sites of nerve entrapment are properly neutralized. Orthopedic Massage Theory and Technique by Whitney Lowe (Mosby Elsevier 2009) page 270.

Incidentally I think my 8 year old son would think I’m extra cool if I told him I was “neutralizing” the enemy of carpal tunnel syndrome. What do you think?

Lastly, please remember I’m not a doctor and this is not medical advice to you personally. Especially if you believe you have some forearms challenges, please get them checked out by a physician, physical therapist or another healthcare professional.