If you sometimes wake up with prickling, stinging, “pins and needles” sensations, or partial loss of feeling in your hands or arms, you’re not alone. In one study, as many as one-third of people experienced numbness or tingling at night at least once a week.
Numbness in the hands can be uncomfortable or worrisome, but it typically goes away after changing sleep position as compressed nerves are released and blood circulation is restored.
We discuss common reasons for numbness in the hands during sleep and ways to remedy this nighttime sensation.
Why Am I Waking Up With Numb Hands?
Most of the time, numbness and tingling in the hands is not cause for alarm. The loss of sensation is typically due to an awkward sleeping position, but in rare cases, may be due to a more serious cause.
There are three major nerves that travel the length of the arm. Sleeping in certain positions, such as with the wrist flexed or with an arm wedged underneath the body, can cause one or more of these nerves to become compressed, cutting off the blood supply and resulting in a tingling or numbness in the hand.
Changing your sleep position and sleeping with your wrists in a relaxed or neutral position could help with numbness that is caused by compression.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Pinched Nerves
The network of nerves responsible for transmitting signals to the arms and hands contains three nerves: the median, ulnar, and radial nerves. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition where the median nerve experiences significant pressure, though compression or pinching of any of these nerves can lead to numbness and tingling of the hands and fingers.
There are a variety of potential causes of carpal tunnel syndrome and pinched nerves, including repetitive motions such as typing or playing video games.
The median nerve provides motor function and sensation to muscles in the forearm, wrist, and hand. The carpal tunnel is the area where the nerve enters the hand from the forearm, traveling along the palm side of the wrist.
When the median nerve becomes compressed within the carpal tunnel, it can lead to the uncomfortable symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Symptoms can affect the entire hand and often include pain, numbness and tingling, clumsiness when gripping objects, difficulty with fine motor coordination, and weakness in grip strength. Symptoms can be worse at night, often awakening people from sleep.
Wearing a brace or splint on the wrist may be helpful in relieving pain or numbness caused by carpal tunnel syndrome. Because symptoms can become worse if the wrist is bent during sleep, wearing a splint at night can allow the area to rest and help to reduce inflammation, pinching, or irritation of the nerve.
Some experts recommend taking regular breaks from repetitive motions that can aggravate the median nerve or increase stress on the hands. It may be helpful to ask a health care professional about over-the-counter pain-relievers or additional medical interventions.
The ulnar nerve begins at the neck, traveling the length of the arm along the inside of the elbow and down into the hand. The ulnar nerve provides feeling to the pinky finger and part of the ring finger. The nerve can become constricted in several areas, including the upper arm, the elbow, and the wrist. This can cause numbness, weakness, pain, and other symptoms.
Treatment recommendations for ulnar nerve compression are similar to those for median nerve compression. A doctor may suggest an elbow or wrist splint at night, over-the-counter pain medications, steroid injections, or surgery to relieve pressure on the nerve.
The radial nerve travels from the armpit down the backside of the arm and into the hand. Damage to this nerve affects the ability to straighten the arm at the elbow and impacts hand and finger strength and coordination.
The radial nerve can become pinched or compressed during sleep but also in other situations as well such as when using crutches or wearing tight clothing or accessories on the upper arms.
Peripheral nerves carry information from the brain and spinal cord to all other parts of the body and travel out to the limbs like branches on a tree. These nerves provide a messaging network that is necessary for the body to function.
Peripheral neuropathy is a term that includes several medical conditions involving injury or damage to the peripheral nerves.
Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include numbness and tingling of the hands, trouble swallowing or digesting food, sexual or urination difficulties, and dysregulation of body temperature. The exact symptoms will depend on whether just one or a few nerves are affected, or if there is a disorder within the entire nervous system.
There are many potential causes of peripheral neuropathy, though injury to the nerves and diabetes are the two most common. Other cases include certain autoimmune disorders, heart and blood problems, hormonal or vitamin imbalances, infections, and certain medications.
Numbness in the hands while sleeping is an experience most people will have on at least a few occasions during their lifetime. Though sleeping in an awkward position is usually the culprit, there are other possible causes for numbness in the hands while sleeping. These include vitamin B deficiency, cervical spondylosis, and Raynaud phenomenon.
How Can I Manage Numbness in Hands?
There are a number of steps you can take to try to relieve numbness in the hands while sleeping.
- Sleep on your side: Side sleeping is associated with the lowest rates of nighttime numbness. If possible, resist sleeping on the stomach with arms or wrists tucked underneath the body.
- Change your sleep side: Flip from right side to left throughout the night to relieve pressure points.
- Wear a wrist or elbow brace to bed: Be sure arms and wrists are not bent or flexed in awkward positions.
- Change your bedding: Using the right mattress and pillow can help to align the spine and may alleviate numbness in the hands.
When Should I See a Doctor?
It’s important to contact a doctor if numbness in the hands while sleeping occurs without an obvious explanation like sleeping position. Furthermore, there are other reasons to seek medical attention for numbness or tingling in the hands, such as:
- Numbness that persists during waking hours
- Numbness in other parts of the body besides the hands and fingers
- Weakness, dizziness, muscle spasms, or loss of control of bodily functions
- Confusion, slurred speech, vision problems, or loss of consciousness
- Numbness or tingling that begins after trauma or from a head, neck, or back injury
- Being at risk for underlying health conditions such as diabetes
To determine the cause of hand numbness, a doctor will usually begin with a physical examination, medical history, and review of current medications. The doctor may ask questions about recent symptoms, frequency, and if anything helps to relieve the uncomfortable sensations. Keeping a journal or log to share with the doctor may help.
The doctor may decide to run tests based on their initial assessment. Tests might include a neurological exam, blood work, and imaging tests to help determine whether there is an underlying medical condition causing numbness in the hands.
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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!