Why You Shouldn’t Ignore Numb Hands While Sleeping

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As a physician, I’ve heard patients for 25 years tell me that their hands go numb when they sleep. Should this be something that worries you, or is it no big deal? After all, if you ask around, hands numb while sleeping isn’t a super common complaint of healthy people. Here’s why you should be concerned about this problem and what may be causing it.

What Causes Numbness in Your Hands?

First, you need to realize that when any body part goes numb, it means that the nerve supply to that area has been cut off. So your hands going numb while you sleep means that some nerve that goes from your neck to the hand is being compressed. Nerves have their own blood supply around the outside, so pressure on a nerve cuts off that blood supply and the nerve eventually is starved for oxygen and nutrients, making the nerve shut down.

If this happens for a short period of time, the nerve just wakes up again once the pressure is removed. However, continued insult on the nerve can mean that it gets a little damaged with each episode. So months or years of numb hands at night can mean damaged nerves.

Illustration of a cross section of the spinal cord showing a healthy disc and disc with spinal stenosis

Olga Bolbot/Shutterstock

Cervical Stenosis or Disc Bulge

What usually causes this to happen? The biggest and most significant cause is neck (cervical) stenosis or a disc bulge, or when there’s little room in the neck bones due to arthritis or that disc for the nerves to travel or exit (1). You don’t have to have constant neck pain with stenosis or a disc bulge and some patients just notice that their hands are numb.

When the neck gets into a weird position at night and the muscles that protect it during the day relax, the nerves get crunched and the hands go numb. Many times a cervical collar worn only at night will reduce the numbness. You may need to experiment with different collars or varying amounts of tightness (usually wearing it loosely while sitting at the side of the bed is enough, as the shoulders come up when you sleep and this makes the collar tighter). If this helps your hands, you likely need a cervical MRI to check this out.

Medical illustration showing thoracic outlet syndrome in the shoulder

Pressure on the nerves in the shoulder. Chu KyungMin/Shutterstock

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

The second biggest cause is thoracic outlet syndrome or TOS. This means that the nerves are getting crunched in the shoulder area (2). This is a common problem for modern computer users, as the shoulder and head come forward leading to nerve compression. There are some stretches in our book Orthopedics 2.0 for this issue.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Other causes can include carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrists. This is when the main nerve of the hand (median nerve) gets pinched in the tunnel that it traverses in the wrist. Usually if this is the cause, simple wrist splints worn at night can be a huge help. However, both of these issues may require your doctor to take a closer look at the overarching cause of this problem.

Learn about Regenexx procedures for spine conditions.

What Other Issues Can Occur?

One of the reasons you should be vigilant about getting this figured out is that these nerves being off line can cause other problems. The biggest concern is that other problems can crop up in the upper extremities that are caused by the nightly nerve compression.

These include tennis and golfer’s elbow (lateral and medial epicondylitis) as well as arthritis in the hands and shoulder (3). How could this happen? The muscles protecting these areas go offline and the extra motion in the joint (which is imperceptible), ends up frying the joint over time. In addition, other new research shows that bad nerves may end up dumping nasty arthritis causing chemicals into the joints.

The upshot? Numbness in your hands at night is a big deal. It’s often ignored by physicians who aren’t experts in the area of musculoskeletal treatment, but take it seriously and find out its root cause. If you don’t, you’ll be wondering why your nerves are getting slowly less sensitive (changes in overall sensation) or why your shoulders, elbows, and hands ache all the time!

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References

(1) Raja A, Hoang S, Patel P, et al. Spinal Stenosis. [Updated 2021 Jul 25]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441989/

(2) Jones MR, Prabhakar A, Viswanath O, et al. Thoracic Outlet Syndrome: A Comprehensive Review of Pathophysiology, Diagnosis, and Treatment. Pain Ther. 2019;8(1):5-18. doi:10.1007/s40122-019-0124-2

(3) Chiarotto A, Fernandez-de-Las-Peñas C, Castaldo M, Negrini S, Villafañe JH. Widespread pressure pain hypersensitivity in elderly subjects with unilateral thumb carpometacarpal osteoarthritis. Hand (N Y). 2013;8(4):422-429. doi:10.1007/s11552-013-9537-2
Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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NOTE: This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.

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