Why Do My Hands and Fingers Feel Numb and Tingly?

numb and tingling hand
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It is not uncommon to experience numbness or tingling of the hands or fingers. These sensations can include a 'pins and needles' feeling, a dull 'lack of feeling,' or strange and bothersome sensations in the hand or fingers on one or both sides of your body.

Generally, these sensations are only mildly bothersome, but it is still important to get medical attention, as they may be a sign of something more serious but treatable.

What Should I Do About Hand or Finger Numbness?

Numbness or tingling of the hand or fingers can be the result of a medical emergency, such as a stroke, a heart attack, or a spinal cord injury. If your symptoms are sudden or severe, if you also feel weakness in any part or your body, can't identify any obvious cause (such as falling asleep on the arm), or if you feel chest pain or shortness of breath, then you should get medical attention right away.

If your numbness or tingling comes and goes, or if it involves both hands, then you should make an appointment to see your doctor.

What Kinds of Tests Are Used to Evaluate Numbness and Tingling?

There are a number of different causes of hand and finger numbness, ranging from nutritional deficiencies to head trauma. Typically, your doctor will not order tests immediately and will first spend time talking with you about your medical history and doing a thorough physical examination.

He or she may ask questions like

  • By numbness, do you mean a "pins and needles" feeling, known as paresthesia, or do you mean a total lack of feeling?
  • Are all areas of the thumb equally affected, or is it just the front, side or back of the thumb?
  • The latter question can be very important in helping distinguish the cause of the numbness.

    The tests ordered are often directed at finding the exact cause of numbness and tingling, with the goal of determining the best treatment plan. You should not expect to have all of these tests, but only a select few that are most likely to be helpful in your individual situation.

    • Blood tests can help determine whether you have a nutritional deficiency, a toxicity, or a medical condition such as diabetes or thyroid disease.
    • Electromyography (EMG) or nerve conduction study (NCV.) These tests evaluate the function of the nerves in your arms and legs. EMG is a test that involves using needles in the affected muscles, while NCV involves applying electrodes to the skin and using a small 'shock' effect. Both of these tests are mildly uncomfortable for a few seconds, but most people are able to tolerate the tests without difficulty, and there should not be any pain or discomfort remaining after the tests are completed.
    • You might need to have a brain CT scan or a brain MRI if there is a possibility that the numbness or tingling is caused by a stroke, multiple sclerosis, head trauma, a brain tumor, or another medical condition involving the brain.
    • A lumbar puncture would be needed in rare cases, such as if your doctor is concerned about a rapidly worsening illness called Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). GBS is characterized by severe weakness of the legs, followed by hand weakness and weakness of the muscles of the body, including the muscles that control breathing. Yet, GBS often begins with mild numbness or tingling of the feet or hands.

      What Could Cause Hand and Finger Numbness?

      In general, any problem involving the brain, spinal cord, or nerves can produce numbness or tingling. However, hand and finger numbness and/or tingling is usually caused by a problem involving the nerves. Causes of hand and/or finger numbness include:

      • Injury to the ulnar nerve as it travels from your neck down to your fingers, especially your ring finger and little finger. An example is when you whack your “funny bone” and feel an uncomfortable tingling shoot down to your fingers.
      • Your median nerve powers your thumb, index finger, and middle finger. This is the nerve that is affected in carpal tunnel syndrome. The most common place for the median nerve to become pinched is in the carpal tunnel, a narrow passage in the wrist where the median nerve travels along several tendons to the fingers. If the tendons become inflamed, the swelling in the narrow tunnel can lead to a pinched nerve. This is sometimes painful, but not always.
      • The superficial branch of the radial nerve is responsible for delivering sensation from the back of the hand, thumb, and first two fingers to the brain. If the radial nerve is interrupted, numbness of the back of the hand can result. Damage to the radial nerve is less common than the medial nerve. The trauma is also more obvious, as well. Rather than a subtle swelling pinching the nerve, the cause may be a bone fracture in the hand, for example.
      • Radiculopathy means that an area of stenosis (narrowing) in the spine compresses a nerve. Radiculopathy is characterized by pain, tingling or sensory loss involving the back, neck, arms or legs.
      • Toxins, nutritional deficiencies, and some infections can damage the peripheral nerves. These conditions affect the entire body at once, and it would be a little unusual for one side of the body to be more affected than another. Examples include lead toxicity and vitamin B12 deficiency, and alcoholic neuropathy.
      • Diabetes is the most common cause of a peripheral neuropathy. It usually begins in the feet and then spreads up throughout the body. This can result in pain and numbness, and eventually can become so debilitating that a person can hardly walk. Often, there is a loss of sensation, which can result in unawareness of  injuries to the feet.
      • A stroke can begin with any of a number of symptoms, including weakness, confusion, numbess and tingling.
      • Multiple sclerosis often involves numbness and/or tingling of any part of the body.

      A Word From Verywell

      If you have experienced numbness or tingling of your hands or fingers, there are different treatment options depending on the cause. In general, most people recover from these symptoms after treatment of the initial cause of the problem. However, without treatment, the symptoms and the underlying cause could become worse, which is why it's so important to visit your doctor.

      Sources:

      van Gent JA, Datema M, Groen JL, Pondaag W, Eekhof JL, Malessy MJ. Anterior subcutaneous transposition for persistent ulnar neuropathy after neurolysis. Neurosurg Focus. 2017 Mar;42(3):E8.

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