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I have chronic circulation problems—it doesn’t take much for my extremities to turn purple and feel icy—so I am always on the defensive when it comes to exercise-related hand and foot care. While hiking, my hands and fingers sometimes swell and feel stiff, resembling “sausage fingers.” There is not one 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 why your hands could become stiff and swollen on the trail, and how to fix them.
Blood vessel expansion
On the trail, your blood primarily flows to your heart, lungs, and leg muscles, which means your hands don’t get as much blood flow as normal. This can result in cold hands, or swollen digits as your blood vessels open wide to let as much blood through as possible.
The fix: While hiking, notice if you are doing anything to restrict blood flow to your hands, such as keeping your fists clenched for prolonged periods of time or hunching your back. Dr. Edward Laskowski—a skier, hiker, cyclist, climber and co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center—wrote that there are a couple things you can do to ease symptoms of swollen hands as they occur:
- Remove tight jewelry (rings, bracelets, etc.) and loosen your watchband before hiking
- Rotate your arm in large forward and backward circles while you walk
- Stretch your fingers and make fists several times throughout the hike to promote circulation
Tight backpack straps
Blood carries oxygen from your heart and throughout your body, but anything that gets in the way of this flow can lead to blood pooling in the hands. A too-tight backpack strap limits blood from making it past your shoulder to the rest of your body. Think of it as when you crimp or step on a hose: It changes the regular flow of the water. This fluid imbalance leads to peripheral edema: the swelling of your lower legs and hands because something interrupted the regular flow of fluids in your body.
The fix: No need to stress. Your hands will start shrinking down to normal once you finish hiking. If you feel discomfort while hiking, use Dr. Laskowski’s tips above.
Before you hit the trails, learn how to pack your backpack and wear it correctly. For overnight hikes, it shouldn’t be more than 20 percent of your body weight, and for dayhikes, keep it below 10 percent. Use your hipbelt to distribute pack weight evenly instead of putting pressure on your shoulders and chest. If you are unsure, go to your nearest outdoor retailer and get your backpack fitted for you.
Next, pull out your trekking poles. They help prevent swelling because they keep your arms moving and promote better circulation throughout the whole body. Keeping your arms dangling at your sides while you ascend inhibits circulation. If your pack is heavy, using poles helps shift the weight off your shoulders with each step.
Sometimes, endurance athletes such as thru-hikers and marathon runners, accidentally dilute their body’s sodium levels when they drink too much water without supplementing with salt. Low sodium levels mean your body’s water levels rise, and your cells expand. Swelling is one symptom, but it’s not the most important or dangerous, as hyponatremia causes nausea, headache, confusion, and fatigue. This one’s serious: If you feel nauseated, confused, or unreasonably tired, seek medical attention immediately.
The fix: This depends on the severity of the condition. In mild cases, you should cut back on your fluid intake. Christopher Tedeschi, associate professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University and Backpacker columnist, says there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to hydration, but there are some universal ground rules everyone should follow: “Instead of slugging down as much water as you can, use common sense: Drink if you’re thirsty. Salty snacks help along the way if you’re drinking loads of water on sweltering days.” If you have nausea, headaches, brain fog, or muscle cramping while hiking, you might need an electrolyte IV or specific medication.