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Numbness in Hands: Is It a Sign of a Serious Medical Condition?

Numbness in hands is usually temporary and will subside naturally. Learn what other conditions can cause this symptom and some clinical and natural ways to ease it.

Woman rubbing her right hand with her left as she sits in front of a keyboard and desktop computer.

Numbness in the hands can happen for many reasons. The condition can be mild and temporary for some, but it could be a symptom of a more serious clinical condition for others.

Read on to discover the possible causes of hand numbness and treatment options that can help with recovery.

Nerve Compression Syndromes 

Pressure on the peripheral nervous system can provoke the onset of nerve compression syndromes. The peripheral nervous system is the nerves that are connected to the hands and feet.

These syndromes can lead to a pinched nerve, or nerve damage and pain in the limbs. Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common syndrome affecting the hands. It stems from increased pressure on the median nerve – a nerve that provides sensation to the thumb, index and middle fingers, and half the ring finger.

Guyon syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome also fall under the category of nerve compression syndromes. The former involves numbness and a tingling sensation in the pinky finger. The latter has the same symptoms as the former, and numbness on the back of the hand.

Peripheral Neuropathy 

People who have this condition will frequently experience numbness, but not pain. Diabetes mellitus, alcoholism and old age are notable risk factors for peripheral neuropathy. Poisoning from metal or industrial compounds — lead, mercury, arsenic and thallium — can also make a person vulnerable to the condition.

The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy are pain, weakness, or a numb or tingling sensation. They start from the toes and eventually move to the calves, fingers, and hands. They also make it difficult for a person to walk, as they affect both sides of the body and nerves in the hands or feet.

The muscles involved in this syndrome are located in the back, neck, and shoulders. A contraction of muscle fibres can stop blood flow, preventing an area of muscle from getting oxygen.

Myofascial Pain Syndrome 

Waste material may also build up in the body’s fibres. These problems will set off trigger points – small bumps or knots in a muscle – which react by sending out a pain signal.

Subsequently, a person’s brain will tell them to stop using that specific muscle. The muscle will tighten and experience symptoms like pain, numbness, a tingling sensation, and pins and needles in the hands.

Transient Ischaemic Attack 

Woman falling down on a rug while holding her forehead as a pair of eyeglasses and wooden cane lie next to her
A loss of balance is a symptom of a transient ischaemic attack.

Also called a mini-stroke, a transient ischaemic attack will have a person feeling temporary numbness, weakness, or a tingling sensation in one arm.

These symptoms may be accompanied by speech and vision difficulties, or a problem with balance. A condition that lasts for a few minutes, can indicate that person has a high risk of developing a stroke.

Transient ischaemic attacks are a medical emergency and need to be attended to immediately. 

Body Constitution Imbalances 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), pathogenic factors and impaired blood and qi (vital life force) flow go hand-in-hand. 

“Recovery from illness or a weak body constitution are two reasons for an insufficient flow of blood and qi in the meridians. These imbalances can see a person have numbness or a tingling sensation in the hands. A sudden attack of the Wind pathogen, too, can also have a similar effect on a person’s hands. Blocked blood and qi flow can happen when the brain, neck, shoulders and upper limbs suffer an attack from Cold pathogens. Blood Stasis can form if the blockage prolongs, and cause a stabbing sensation in the fingers,” explains Eu Yan Sang Physician Jolene Chong.

Steps to Diagnose and Treat Numbness in Hands 

Healthcare providers will look at a person’s medical history and perform a physical examination to narrow down the possible reasons for your problem. Laboratory tests will help a healthcare provider identify treatable causes of neuropathy. These include tests for: 

  • HIV/AIDS 
  • Vasculitis 
  • Lyme disease 
  • Hepatitis B and C 
  • Oral glucose tolerance 
  • Antibodies to nerve components 
  • Antibodies related to celiac disease 
  • Kidney, liver and thyroid functions 
  • Vitamin B12 and folate levels 

Further tests may also be used to help confirm a diagnosis. These include:  

  • Angiogram 
  • Ultrasound 
  • Spinal tap 
  • Blood tests 
  • Toxicology tests 
  • Thyroid function tests 
  • Vitamin level tests 
  • Electromyography (EMG) 
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) 
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan of the head and spine 

Clinical Remedies for Numbness in Hands

Woman taking a pill while holding a glass of water
Over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen can help with easing pain.

Over-the-counter medication 

The pain you feel with a pinched nerve naturally subsides within a few days or weeks. Over-the-counter medications can help ease the pain, like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen. Acetaminophen can also help. Healthcare providers may prescribe corticosteroids to ease severe pain. 

Splints 

A soft splint can limit a person’s hand movement while they recover. Stretches and light exercises can take pressure off the nerves, alleviating pain.

Surgery 

Two surgical options are available for carpal tunnel syndrome. These are open and endoscopic surgeries. During open surgery, a surgeon will make a single two-inch incision in the wrist and cut the ligament. Endoscopic surgeries use a tiny camera and require a surgeon to make one or two cuts.

The objective of both surgeries is the same; to relieve carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms by cutting the ligament. It can take 10 to 12 weeks to recover from either procedure.

Needling 

Myofascial pain syndrome can be treated with dry and wet needling. Dry needling uses thin needles to decrease tightness and increase blood flow while wet needling uses the same apparatus to inject an anaesthetic into a trigger point. 

The difference between these two treatments and acupuncture is that in acupuncture, needles are injected and left in place for about 15 to 30 minutes. They’re inserted into points along meridian lines, which represent the body’s organs.

Thrombolytic therapy 

The goal of treatment after an ischaemic stroke is to restore blood flow to the affected area of the brain. Thrombolytic therapy can help break up clots that prevent blood from flowing to the brain.

Examples include a tissue plasminogen activator called alteplase or a medication called Tenecteplase. Mechanical thrombectomy is a procedure to place a catheter in a blocked artery and remove a clot simultaneously. 

Other clinical remedies  

Low-level laser light therapy stimulates the release of pain-relieving chemicals.

If the cause of peripheral neuropathy is diabetes, you need to keep your blood sugar level within the target range.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Remedies

TCM advises keeping the body warm and avoiding external pathogens like Wind and Cold to help prevent conditions that cause hand numbness. Eating a well-balanced diet and living an active lifestyle can encourage proper blood and qi circulation. Drinking a medicinal beverage that contains bovine daily will help improve joint health.

Herbal formulas and ingredients

The use of natural ingredients can relieve numbness by addressing specific body constitution imbalances. These are herbs that boost blood and qi flow in the meridians, and warm-natured herbs that expel Wind, such as:

  • Earthworm (di long, 地龙)
  • Safflower (hong hua, 红花)
  • Turmeric (jiang huang, 姜黄)
  • Cassia twig (gui zhi, 桂枝)
  • Chinese Angelica (dang gui, 当归)
  • Red sage root (dan shen, 丹参)
  • Honeysuckle vine (ren dong teng, 忍冬)
  • Mulberry branch (sang zhi, 桑枝)
  • Panax notoginseng (san qi, 三七)
  • Peach kernel (tao ren, 桃仁)
  • Red peony (chi shao, 赤芍)
  • Beautiful Sweetgum fruit (lu lu tong, 路路通)

These herbal decoctions can also help with numbness in hands:

  • Coix seed soup (Yi Yi Ren Tang, 薏苡仁汤): removes Wind, dissipates Cold, resolves Dampness, and clears the meridians.
  • Peony and Liquorice soup (Shao Yao Gan Cao Tang, 芍药甘草汤): strengthens the organ systems, relaxes the tendons, and alleviates pain. 
  • Body Pain Zhu Yu Decoction (Shen Tong Zhu Yu Tang, 身痛逐瘀汤): supports blood and qi circulation and clears Stasis and phlegm in the meridians.

Acupressure massage

Simple, regular massaging of acupressure points may ease forearm tension and stop the formation of blockages within the meridians. The points that can be worked on are: 

  • He gu (LI4, 合谷) 
  • Qu chi (LI11, 曲池) 
  • Nei guan (PC6, 内关) 
  • Lao gong (PC8, 内劳宫) 
  • Shi xuan (EX-UE11, 十宣) 
  • Ba xie (EX-UE9, 八邪) 

Cupping therapy, acupuncture and moxibustion can also help address the conditions that aggravate prompt hand numbness.

Identifying and treating the underlying conditions behind numbness in hands can help a person do away with the problem. TCM treatment methods are normally safe for everyone but a discussion with a licensed TCM practitioner of the system of medicine is recommended. It’ll help a person understand their body constitution and enable the practitioner to develop an appropriate plan of action.

References

  1. Cleveland Clinic. Numbness in Hands. [online] [Accessed 26 August 2022]
  2. Cleveland Clinic. Nerve Compression Syndromes. [online] [Accessed 26 August 2022]
  3. Cleveland Clinic. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. [online] [Accessed 26 August 2022]
  4. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Numbness In Hands. [online] [Accessed 26 August 2022]
  5. Cleveland Clinic. Myofascial Pain Syndrome. [online] [Accessed 26 August 2022]
  6. Pain Care Clinic. Myofascial Pain. [online] [Accessed 26 August 2022]
  7. UCSF Health. Stroke Signs and Symptoms. [online] [Accessed 26 August 2022]
  8. Cleveland Clinic. Pinched Nerves. [online] [Accessed 26 August 2022]
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes and Nerve Damage. [online] [Accessed 26 August 2022]
  10. UpToDate. 2021. Patient education: Ischemic stroke treatment (Beyond the Basics). [online] [Accessed 26 August 2022]

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