It is no surprise that pain can impact your quality of sleep. If you have ever woken up with a leg cramp or tried falling asleep with a backache, you know the trouble pain can cause. Waking up with numbness in your hands and fingers may feel as unnerving as waking up in pain.
Many people experience the occasional numbness or tingling hands upon waking due to sleeping in a position that cuts off blood circulation. However, numbness in hands and fingers may also indicate a larger issue. An estimated 7% to 10% of people report experiencing some kind of nerve pain that impacts their quality of life, including sleep. For most people, waking up with numb hands once in a while is not cause for concern. However, if your symptoms greatly interfere with sleep or persist after you are up and moving, it may be time to see a doctor.
Why Do I Wake Up With Numb Hands?
Numbness in your arms or hands is a loss of sensation that can occur due to a variety of causes. Your hands or arms might become numb — or “fall asleep” — because a nerve was compressed, your circulation was cut off by your sleeping position, or because of an underlying cause.
Sometimes numbness is followed by a tingling or pins and needles sensation, called paresthesia. Like numbness, paresthesia can occur during sleep as a result of certain sleeping positions. Both numbness and paresthesia are also associated with nerve compression and certain underlying health problems.
Nerve Compression or Damage
A common culprit of numb hands during sleep is a damaged or compressed nerve. Nerves in the hands and arms can become damaged after repeated movements. When this damage occurs as a result of a person’s occupation, symptoms may be called “working hand syndrome.” People who make repetitive movements with their hands and arms for work are more likely to experience numbness, pain, and tingling in their hands, especially at nighttime.
Nerve damage causing numbness and tingling in the hands, which is also called peripheral neuropathy, can result from more than repetitive manual labor. Some people experience similar symptoms due to drug use, infection, hereditary disease, injury, or inflammation.
Ulnar Nerve Compression
The ulnar nerve helps you grip things using your forearm muscles and brings sensation to the pinky and ring fingers. This nerve runs from your elbow to your fingers. The ulnar nerve is responsible for the tingling and numbness you experience when you hit your elbow.
Pressure on your elbow or your wrist could compress the ulnar nerve, creating numb fingers when you wake up. Your ulnar nerve is likely involved if you wake up with numbness in your:
- Pinky finger, either front or back side
- Ring finger, usually closer to your pinky
- Hand, below the pinky and ring fingers
If you experience minor ulnar nerve compression at your elbow, learning to position your arm differently might be enough to treat the problem. If you experience more serious compression, surgery could help provide relief.
Radial Nerve Compression
The radial nerve controls the muscles in your forearm and wrist that help extend your wrist and fingers. Pressure on your wrist, forearm, and bicep can pinch the radial nerve and cause numbness or pain. Sleeping on your wrist or forearm, or sleeping with your arm draped on something, could compress the radial nerve. If you are traveling and want to sleep on a plane or car, try to avoid using your forearms or curling your wrists against a window as a pillow for your head, which could put pressure on the radial nerve.
Your radial nerve might be compressed if you feel numbness in your:
- Index finger
- Hand, between the index finger and thumb
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome, a disorder often associated with office employees, is the most common entrapment neuropathy, or nerve compression issue in the arm. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a compression of the median nerve as it travels through the carpal tunnel in the arm. The median nerve brings sensation to the index and middle fingers. Like the ulnar nerve, this nerve can be compressed at both the elbow and the wrist, so it helps to be mindful of how you are curling up each night.
Your median nerve may be compressed if you experience numbness in:
- The front of your thumb
- Your index or middle finger
- The base of the thumb
Although most people associate carpal tunnel syndrome with computer work, any small, repetitive movement of the wrist can cause it. About 3% of people experience carpal tunnel syndrome, and the disorder is more common in women. Many people with carpal tunnel syndrome get better on their own over time, but some people’s symptoms worsen. People who experience carpal tunnel syndrome often report waking during the night due to pain in their hands and wrist.
Wearing a brace as you sleep or stretching your hands and wrists may help relieve carpal tunnel pain. If your pain persists, see a doctor. More severe cases of carpal tunnel that last for several months may require surgery.
Other Medical Issues That Cause Hand Numbness
Compressed nerves aren’t the only reason you may wake up with numbness in your hands. These other medical disorders can also cause numbness:
- Cervical Spondylosis: A chronic degenerative disease that impacts neck muscles, tendons, and bones, cervical spondylosis is fairly common. It is more often seen in older adults. Common symptoms include neck pain and stiffness, as well as pain and numbness in the arms, shoulders, and fingers.
- Thoracic Outlet Syndrome: This disorder involves compression or irritation of blood vessels in the upper chest due to anatomical variations of the muscles in that region. Most cases of thoracic outlet syndrome are caused by whiplash or other neck trauma. Sometimes the disorder is caused by repetitive motions or, less commonly, by having an extra rib.
- Diabetes Mellitus: More commonly known as type 2 diabetes, this disorder is characterized by an inability of the body to use or create insulin adequately and can result in nerve damage. Nerve damage can cause numbness and tingling sensations in the hands and feet.
Tips to Reduce Numbness in Hands When Sleeping
Depending on the cause, you may be able to reduce numbness in your hands while sleeping a few ways. First, it may help to have a pillow and mattress that are supportive yet soft, so pressure points are less likely to develop in your neck or shoulders. Supporting the neck and spine is an important step to getting good rest. You can also try the following:
- Wear a wrist brace to bed to help stabilize your wrist during sleep.
- Try a new sleeping position, particularly on your side.
- Avoid laying on your arms under your pillow, which can compress nerves. Make sure your wrists remain unflexed, since flexing can lead to tingling.
- If you often sleep on your back with your arms overhead, try keeping them next to you to reduce nerve pinching.
- Try stretching your hands and wrists before going to sleep.
- Rule out any other underlying disorders with your doctor.
When to Talk to Your Doctor
Usually, numbness and tingling experienced during the night happens infrequently and goes away fairly quickly. However, if numbness in your arms and hands is persistent or causing poor quality sleep, it might be time to see your doctor. If you’re experiencing any of the following, you may want to consider making a doctor’s appointment:
- Numbness that lasts into the day
- Numbness across the body, not just in your hands
- Muscle weakness
- Clumsiness in your hands or fingers
- Sudden weakness or dizziness
- Pain in arms and legs that won’t go away
Your doctor should be able to assess your symptoms and help you determine the next steps.
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