By Dr. Josh Bross, DC, MS, CCSP, CSCS
After about 3 months of Crossfit, I was starting to get accustomed to the intensity of the workouts and the different techniques required for the various WODs. One of the lifts I had to learn was the overhead squat. Even though I have worked out since I was a teenager, I had never attempted this exercise in the gym. So, even though I knew what the overhead squat should look like, having the range of motion and the core strength to perform it (at heavier weights) is another story. My coaches worked with me to practice proper form, and I seemed to have it down.
After warming up and completing our strength workout, we did an AMRAP WOD. During round 3, in the middle of the overhead squat, I started to develop the right forearm and hand numbness. I dropped the bar immediately and tried to shake it out. I am a sports chiropractor, so I immediately tried to diagnose what was going on. I moved my neck around, hoping it wasn’t a pinch nerve. My neck felt great with a full range of motion. So cross that off the list. After ruling that out, I had to figure out what peripheral nerve, or nerve down the arm, is causing the forearm or hand numbness. Because the whole hand is numb, the brachial plexus (group of nerves formed between the neck and shoulder) is most likely involved. So I palpated the nerves going through my axilla (armpit) and down the inside of my arm. I noticed the soft tissue around my axilla and upper arm was very hard compared to the left arm.
“Ah ha”, I said to myself! Here was the issue—while performing the overhead squat, the limited flexion in my shoulders, in combination with nerve tension in the axilla, pulled on the brachial plexus, irritating the nerves, causing my forearm and hand to go numb.
After realizing this, I started to do some massage around the area, and after 30-60 minutes the hand numbness went away. Let me be clear- overhead squats didn’t cause this issue, it’s because the reduced flexibility of my shoulder and nerve glide that created tension. Therefore at the top of the squat, the brachial plexus was pulled on, causing the symptoms down my arm.
What Can You to Prevent This From Happening to You?
- Practice proper technique with your coaches.
- Practice mobility movements. Make sure you have enough shoulder and hip flexibility to allow for proper and safe overhead squats.
- Take enough time to warm up.
- Visit a chiropractor or physical therapist that specializes in soft tissue treatment, and is familiar with nerve flossing. An added benefit is a professional who does Crossfit themselves, because that person can speak and understand from experience.
Side note: Before writing this blog, I googled numbness with overhead squats, and the only reason that I was given in most posts was a pinched nerve in the neck. While this can certainly be the issue for some people, I would be willing to bet the peripheral nerve issue I had is way more common among Crossfit athletes.
About Dr. Bross:
Doctor of Chiropractic from the Southern California University of Health Sciences
Masters Degree in Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology from the University of Southern California
Bachelors of Science from the University of Maryland, College Park
Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist from the National Strength and Conditioning Association
Certified Chiropractic Sports Practitioner from the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians