When Rope Gets On our Nerves

A few weeks ago, I had my first experience with nerve impingement during a tie. Considering I’ve been in ropes regularly for the last two years, and was first tied around six years ago, I am honestly surprised that this was my first time. As I always say: doing shibari is really a pretty daft thing to do. 

For me, the experience wasn’t a bad one. I attribute this to a number of factors, which I will go into in more detail below. However, a lot of people aren’t so lucky, so I thought it was about time to speak to ropey people about their experiences. 

This blog post is anecdotal first and foremost: I have simply asked people to share what happened to them. They also share their advice for people who tie, but this article is not everything you need to know, and it is definitely not a substitute for doing your own research. Shibari is fun, but it comes with risks. It’s important for you to know the risks, and how they fit within your own risk profile.

And before we get into it, here are two really useful resources for comprehensive information about nerves:

Alexa (aka @alexahamartia)

What was your experience of nerve impingement/ damage?

The first sensation was a shooting pain down my right arm (I’ve had sciatica in recent years so can definitely confirm this was nerve pain). My rigger untied me slowly so as not to allow all blood rushing back and I couldn’t use the smallest fingers on my right hand. I was able to manually move them but there was stiffness and very little movement on their own. Because I was not in the UK at the time, I went to my GP as soon as I got back. They confirmed it. I did exercises for my hands every day and after 6 weeks, I started to regain some movement.

Why did it happen?

I was in a TK in a side suspension and we were doing a transition class (at EURIX). The transition gave a bit of a drop and rotation to my body and I almost slid a little. I think my arm got caught in an up line.

Could you have prevented it? If so, how?

I’m not sure I could. He was technically competent as a rigger and, due to it being a sudden impact, I wouldn’t have felt it coming on.

I’ve learnt more body awareness and my communication has grown from here (as someone who loves to be tied) and I pride myself on my active communication now.

The up line getting caught was a complete accident and the lighting in the room was poor for atmosphere. I don’t hold anyone responsible for this.

Anything else to add?

It took me years to get over my fear of TK’s.

I’ve finally found a tie that works well for my body and practicing that. Learning to be patient and listen to it.


What was your experience of nerve impingement/ damage?

So I started noticing a loss in sensation in my left little finger one day, there wasn’t anything specific that lead up to it. It felt as if the finger has gone to sleep but I could still move it and use it to grip but… it felt odd. After a few weeks I noticed that loss of sensation spreading to my ring finger on the same hand. I went to my GP who referred me to a neurologist, who suggested I get a nerve conduction test. It’s now about 2 months, I regained sensation in the ring finger but haven’t recovered it in the little finger.

Why did it happen?

From having done rope for a while, being aware of common nerve damage ,and speaking to rope friends I was aware it might be an ulnar nerve impingement, possibly from a TK or consistent compression over time. The nerve conduction test confirmed there was ulnar nerve damage and degeneration, possibly from compression of the nerve anywhere from the elbow to the wrist. I understand from the doctors that this is also a common issue for people with desk jobs who rests their arms on tables. As there wasn’t a specific event I could point to that would have led to this, I suspect it might be a combination of my work and rope that has lead to some sort of constant compression of the ulnar nerve.

Could you have prevented it? If so, how?

I don’t think I could have prevented this – I have always been aware to do nerve checks when in rope and to alert rope partners when I experience rapid loss of sensation or if a tie feels ‘off’. Unfortunately nerve damage can happen due to consistent pressure or compression over time and it is part of the risk involved with doing rope

Eleni (aka @kink.and.cuddles

What was your experience of nerve impingement/ damage?

I was in a tenshi, and I could feel that my left arm was tighter and less “comfortable” than my right. I asked my rigger to dress it, which she did, and it felt much better so we went up into a suspension. Quite quickly, though, I could feel that something felt “off”. I was feeling some of the usual tingling, that I’ve come to recognise as lack of circulation (something that is within my risk profile), but I could also feel a difference between my hand as a whole and the left hand side of my hand (the palm and my little finger). When I checked the strength in it, by squeezing it against my thumb, it didn’t feel right. I got my rigger’s attention, who also checked my strength and then released my left arm as quickly as she could. Within a few minutes my hand had returned to normal.

Why did it happen?

My ulnar nerve was being pressed on by the ropes in the tenshi position.

Could you have prevented it? If so, how?

In this situation, I think I probably could have. I have explored arm ties much less than ties on other parts of my body, partly because I have been nervous about nerve damage. I knew the left arm felt different to the right, but after dressing I thought it would be alright. Ideally, I probably would have asked for it to be re-tied, which would likely have prevented it from happening as my right arm was fine the whole time. 

Pen (aka @kinknamepending)

What was your experience of nerve impingement/ damage?

I’ve had a few different experiences and in some it was easier to tell than others. The ‘worst’ one I had resulted in shoulder drop, which I think is less common. I had no idea it had happened until we were doing aftercare: I went to raise my arm and it was really difficult to lift it above my shoulder, or raise my shoulder itself. I’d get to a certain point it felt like there was a sticking point where I had to use other muscles. I had numbness from the exact point where the wrap had been across the shoulder on both sides, but it was just one side that I had the muscle/ motor impact. It took over a month to fully recover the movement, and even longer for the sensation to come back. I did cheerleading at the time, so I was out for a month. 

Why did it happen?

I was in an inverted hashira, so a lot of my weight was in the wraps across my neck/trapezius muscle, which is where a bunch of different nerves essentially exit the neck vertebrae and branch out. We had a single wrap, rather than two, so that’s already higher risk, along with the position. We talk often about wraps, and about body positioning, but something we don’t really speak about is whether or not the muscle and the fat around that area is condensed or stretched. In this tie, my hands were tied to my ankles, so the muscles in my shoulders were about as elongated as they can get. They had the least amount of protection, which is something I hadn’t thought about before when thinking about nerve injury.

People are able to squat three times my bodyweight across their shoulders, but part of the reason why they’re able to do that without damaging their spine or their nerves is because they engage and contract their muscles, so they’re protecting the nerves underneath. 

Could you have prevented it? If so, how?

There were no signs that I could pick up while in that particular tie but… I’m more experienced now, so I’m able to notice it a lot easier. That was a tough tie – there were tears – but I didn’t know that there was injury until afterwards. 

I think now I’m starting to notice when something’s a problem before it becomes a problem, and I think that probably comes with experience. When you first start you’re like, “It feels tight!” But tight doesn’t necessarily mean bad [and loose often doesn’t mean good] so it’s kind of hard to tell. I’ve never had actual wrist drop, just temporary issues, like starting to lose movement, which comes back the moment you untie. I’m usually okay with letting my feet and legs go numb, and to an extent my hands. I’m not super experienced with this, but like strapados, for example, as long as the movement is there it’s ok. But…numbness due to lack of circulation can make it hard to tell if there is targeted sensation loss that might be due to nerves.But, again, this is down to everyone’ individual risk profile.

And, then the other thing is checks (see below!) If I was in that position now, I wouldn’t just check my hands, I would check areas that I am more concerned about, or parts of my body that are taking the brunt of the tie. Like my shoulders… could I shrug my shoulders? Probably not actually, given the ropes, but can I move the muscles as if I intend to shrug my shoulders? Do I feel like I could make this movement, even if that movement is restricted?

And there is something to be said about being aware of the risks versus actively worrying about a nerve injury and holding tension in a tie . If you’re tense, you’re pressing harder into the rope, so you’re potentially increasing your chances of said damage. It’s a fine line!

Alex, aka @latexdancer 

What was your experience of nerve impingement/ damage?

I experienced a full wrist drop caused by a partially loaded TK. I have poor circulation so I lose sensation in my fingers often, but that time it was different. Usually I get pins and needles in my fingers and they get cold and then I gradually loose sensation. That time I had the injury I lost sensation and movement after a short period of time and it just felt somewhat „different“. I had complete loss of movement and sensation for about 12h, then it came gradually back over approximately 1 week

Why did it happen?

it happened at a life drawing session, I was in a TK and the bottom wrap was just in the wrong position. I was in the position (a partial suspension with not much weight on the TK) for approximately 7 minutes, luckily I realised that something was wrong during that and came out of it instead of transitioning into full suspension.

Could you have prevented it? If so, how?

probably. I’ve been in a TK a lot of times and I know exactly where my wraps need to be. When we tied this one I wasn’t paying attention, I guess I would have noticed the placement of I had. Additionally,  then the adrenaline of performing made me notice it potentially later than I could have

Anything else to add?

I went to see my physiotherapist straight after the injury to ask for advice – she recommended a variety of gentle stretches and a stress ball to get my grip strength back. If you are compensating through using other muscles, you can put some heat on to relax those, immediately after the injury some ice on the arm can feel nice, but eventually neither heat or cold have any impact on the actual nerve, so trust your body instincts as of what you feel you need and don’t rely on the internet!

Some tips for preventing nerve issues in rope

I think it’s important to note (again) that shibari is inherently risky, and most people who do it will have some experience of nerve damage/ impingement at some point. However, there are definitely things we can do to reduce the impacts, and ways to make sure we are at least practising consensual, risk-aware shibari. Here are some tips from our community.

Don’t rush 

Starting out with shibari can be super exciting and we can very much get caught up in what is known as “frenzy”. However, like with all kink, it’s super important to take your time and prioritise safety. With all things, we pass through stages of conscious and unconscious competence and incompetence… ultimately we don’t know what we don’t know. The problem with a hobby like shibari, is that unconscious incompetence can be really quite dangerous. 

It also takes time to learn what’s normal for your body/ your rope bottom’s body in rope, and thus to be able to gauge when things aren’t right. Slowing down and taking your time to do your due diligence is super important.

Educate yourself about nerves

Until you experience some sort of nerve issue it can be really hard to know how it feels. Alexa says: “Educate yourself on nerve injury vs circulation and what different nerve injury can look like. Be aware that even though we can mitigate risk, there is always the chance of nerve damage and it should be more talked about.”

Dion adds: “There is a very fine line between loss of sensations due to blood flow being cut off and a potential nerve impingement. Sometimes nerve damage can show up days/ months/ years after.”

For me, even though I hadn’t experienced it before, because I had done my research and listened to people talking about their experiences, I found I was able to spot the signs and — now that I do know what it feels like — I feel more confident going forward. 

Learn from reputable teachers (and prioritise in-person teaching if you can)

There are so many different ways to learn shibari — in-person and online workshops; videos; books — and we all have our preferred learning styles. It can also be quite expensive.

Coming to some beginners classes are a great (and cheap!) starting point. Pen’s advice:  “If you’re going to tie beyond doing a beginner jam, you should get some form of in-person tuition, whether it’s a workshop, or private tuition.” This learning can absolutely be supplemented by less hands-on learning, but real-time conversation is hard to beat. 

“Also,” says Alexa, “Learn a good gote and single column tie from some good educators.”

Carry out checks regularly

There are certain standard checks that can be done to check nerves like: pressing your fingers against your thumb to check strength, and making sure you can move your hand backwards and forwards at the wrist. But there are also other, more comprehensive, checks that can be done preemptively, or if the bottom notices something that worries them. 

“I’ll raise my thumb to check my radial nerve, but I won’t just test movement of my radial nerve, I’ll also test sensation,” says Pen. “So, if I’m in a TK I’ll run my finger across the back of my thumb and my thumb across the back of my finger. If it starts to feel numb to the touch, then I know that there’s a problem. I’m now at a point where I believe I’m starting to know where the problem is, in terms of exactly where the wraps are sitting in a TK: I can feel where the nerve was being compressed if, for example, the wraps are slightly too low.” Another vote for experience, then!

“Another thing,” Pen continues, “ Is for the rigger to check skin sensation both above and below a wrap to test for any differences. With my shoulder drop, I could see the red line where the wrap had been. I had sensation directly above it and below it I had none. It was as clear cut as that.”

Make checks fun/ part of a scene

Making these checks a part of the scene is important too, so they don’t impact on the mood unless they really need to. They can become instinctive, like a partner placing a hand in yours automatically means you will squeeze it. 

K says: “I think being in the habit of just doing your checks, both as a bottom and as a top is super important. My partner will do this casually. Like when he’s moving around me he’ll touch my hand, or an area that might be in danger of being affected, and quite often  that’s enough for me to be like, ‘hang on a second’. Or, if we’re doing a silly scene, he’ll play ‘This little piggy goes to market’ on my foot, which is so embarrassing but doesn’t break the mood. If you’re in the habit of it, checks are so quick to do that they shouldn’t impact the scene at all. Also, rope is so much about nonverbal communication, so, as a top if you notice your bottom increasing the amount of checks they’re doing you might check in.”

Obviously, there are times when a rope bottom might verbally ask for their rigger to check a certain body part for movement, strength or sensation. But incorporating checks into every scene can be subtle and seamless, and often sexy. 

Play and lab

“As a beginner it’s really, really hard to learn the difference between the nerves and circulation, not least because you’ve got this whole world of other sensory things going on,” A says. “My advice is to separate out lab-time (practise time) and playtime, and use lab time to scope out sensations as much as figuring out certain ties. Labbing should be as much about the bottom as it is about the rigger: whatever you’re labbing, take time for the rope bottom to feel how things feel when you have more cognitive processing ability than you might have during play.”

Trust your judgement

As above, sometimes rope bottoms can feel fussy or needy if they’re asking for too many adjustments – I know I’ve felt like this! But, says Alex, “You don’t need to justify coming out of a tie. I remember debating with myself about that specific TK, thinking: ‘Oh it’s probably just circulation, I’m not even suspended, I’m probably okay,’ knowing that I definitely wasn’t. So I guess my advice is: if it feels wrong, it likely is.” If your rigger makes you feel like an inconvenience for communicating, then that is a huge red flag. Which brings us on to…

Make it safe to communicate

Checks and time to practise are all well and good, but if there isn’t a culture of communication between you and your rope partner, there could still be difficulties. “I always feel comfortable and safe to be like, ‘Hey, there’s a problem’ when I’m tying with my partner,” says Pen. “And, importantly, it doesn’t always end the scene. And when I tie I try to really reinforce that point that I’d rather they tell me, we change something, and then we carry on, so long as it’s safe to do so.” Often, an issue might be solved by a small adjustment. 

“I remember when I first started bottoming,” Pen continues, “I really wanted  to please the top you, to be the perfect trouble-free bottom. But now I think the perfect bottom is someone who can advocate for themselves, not someone who can do crazy shit.”

And ultimately, have a plan for the worst-case scenario

For most people who do rope, some form of nerve issue will happen at some time: “It does not inherently indicate a bad rigger and shouldn’t be used as gossip,” says Alexa. “However, don’t just throw yourself into ties with anyone: vet people for technical ability and other things, like their previous experiences and how they dealt with them.” Communication and transparency are important for learning purposes and, as a community, we don’t often like to talk about the things that go wrong as much as we talk about the joys. Sharing experiences can be powerful and really help people understand what to look out for. 

Pen, who is in medical training, says that — to the best of his knowledge — nerve injuries in shibari rarely result in the severing of a nerve that results in permanent injury. Instead, it is usually the myelin sheath that is damaged due to compression. These will usually heal within three months, and much more quickly if the compression of the nerve is noticed quickly and the ropes are removed. Longer-term damage is usually the result of prolonged compression.

Dion adds: “It’s important to maintain open honest communication with your rope partners and to plan for worst case scenarios because rope is inherently risky.” What would happen if you or your rope bottom lost the use of their hand for three months? 


And once again, some resources:

If nerve damage does occur it is best not to ice the area for more than a day or two as this will slow healing. It’s worth visiting a medical professional and being honest about how the injury occurred. Physiotherapy-type exercises may also help speed up healing. 

Please remember this is an anecdotal resource. 

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