Why your hands swell while hiking (and how to fix it)

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I have chronic circulation problems – it doesn’t take much for my extremities to turn purple and icy – so I’m always on the defensive when it comes to exercise-related hand and foot care . During the hike my hands and fingers sometimes swell and feel stiff, resembling ‘sausage fingers’. There is no known cause for this phenomenon; swollen digits are your body’s response to the physical stressors that come with hiking. Here are some of the reasons your hands can get stiff and swollen on the trail, and how to fix them.

Expansion of blood vessels

On the trail, your blood flows mainly to your heart, lungs, and leg muscles, which means your hands aren’t getting as much blood as usual. It can lead to cold hands or swollen fingers when your blood vessels open wide to let as much blood as possible.

The fix: While hiking, note if you do anything to restrict blood flow to your hands, such as keeping your fists closed for long periods of time or arching your back. Dr Edward Laskowski, skier, hiker, cyclist, climber and co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center, wrote that there are several things you can do to relieve the symptoms of swelling in the hands when they occur:

  • Remove tight jewelry (rings, bracelets, etc.) and loosen your bracelet before going on a hike
  • Rotate your arm in large circles forward and backward as you walk
  • Stretch your fingers and clench your fists several times throughout the hike to promote circulation
(Photo: Cavan Images via Getty Images)

Tight backpack straps

Blood carries oxygen to your heart and throughout your body, but anything that hinders this flow can cause blood to pool in your hands. An excessively tight backpack strap prevents blood from passing from your shoulder to the rest of your body. Think of it like when you crimp or step on a pipe: it changes the regular flow of water. This fluid imbalance leads to peripheral edema: swelling in your lower legs and hands because something has interrupted the regular flow of fluids through your body.

The fix: No need to stress. Your hands will start to return to normal once you have completed the hike. If you experience any discomfort while hiking, use Dr. Laskowski’s advice above.

Before hitting the trails, learn how to pack your backpack and wear it correctly. For night hikes, it should be no more than 20% of your body weight, and for day hikes, keep it below 10%. Use your belt to evenly distribute the weight of the pack instead of putting pressure on your shoulders and chest. If in doubt, go to your nearest outdoor dealer and have your backpack fitted.

Then take out your trekking poles. They help prevent swelling because they keep your arms moving and promote better circulation throughout the body. Keeping your arms hanging down to your sides as you go up inhibits circulation. If your backpack is heavy, using poles helps shift the weight off your shoulders with each step.

Hyponatremia

Sometimes endurance athletes such as hikers and marathon runners accidentally dilute their body’s sodium levels when they drink too much water without supplemental salt. Low sodium levels mean your body’s water levels are rising and your cells are growing. Swelling is a symptom, but it’s not the most important or the most dangerous, as hyponatremia causes nausea, headaches, confusion, and fatigue. This is serious: If you feel nauseous, confused, or excessively tired, see a doctor immediately.

The fix: It depends on the severity of the disease. In mild cases, you should reduce your fluid intake. Christopher Tedeschi, associate professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University and Backpacker columnist, says there is no one-size-fits-all solution to hydration, but there are universal ground rules that everyone people should follow, “Instead of swallowing as much water as you can, use common sense: drink if you are thirsty. Salty snacks help along the way if you drink plenty of water on hot days. If you have nausea, headaches, brain fog, or muscle cramps while hiking, you may need an IV electrolyte or a specific medication.


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