Numb fingers during sleep?
November 29, 2008 8:22 PM   Subscribe

During sleep, I experience hand or finger numbness. It involves the first three digits mostly (thumb, pointer and middle).

It is not due to sleeping *on* a particular hand (it affects the hands one at a time, I think) as I have experienced it on the uppermost hand when sleeping on my side. I have lower back issues and wonder if this is a symptom of damage further up and yes, I plan to see a doctor about it, but I would like to be as knowledgeable as possible before making an appointment. I am in my forties and have a family history of adult-onset diabetes (Can I test for this at home?) and MS. I don't sleep through the night due to the back issues and notice this several times through the night. Any suggestions for things to pursue with the doctor? (I do not have this problem during the day.)
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Could be a number of things but what you describe is less likely to be related to diabetes, MS, or back problems for that matter. I'd suggest reading about this.
posted by drpynchon at 8:37 PM on November 29, 2008

This is probably due to compression of the median nerve, which runs down the arm and innervates the surfaces of the thumb, index, and middle finger. I often get numbness in those three digits if I've been laying on my arm, or if someone else has been doing so.

So: ask your doctor, just to be sure, but it's probably not anything to worry about. Does it go away soon after you wake up and move, possibly followed by pins and needles? If so, it's probably nothing to worry about, no more so than having your foot go to sleep.

Still, you should not trust, or solicit, medical advice from unknown internauts....
posted by brianogilvie at 8:42 PM on November 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

The first three digits being numb indicated nerve compression on my MRI in the C6 and C7 area.

If you are sleeping on a pillow that doesn't keep your neck straight, you may be exacerbating some nerve compression.

Naturally, IANYD, but I have been through some tests to determine that this was *my* problem.
posted by tomierna at 8:44 PM on November 29, 2008

In the meantime (before you see your doctor), see if (while sleeping on your side) you can sleep with your arms stretched out around a pillow. Like this. I have hand and arm numbness problems, too, (related to a neck/brain issue, so yes, get thee to your doctor) and this seems to really help me while sleeping. YMMV.
posted by phunniemee at 9:15 PM on November 29, 2008

Weird. I was just talking about this today.

A few years ago, I would wake up with my outside fingers (ring and pinkie) not just numb, but cramped, curled up and paralyzed. It would take several seconds for them to straighten out and lose their numbness. Needless to say, I was a little freaked out to wake up with OMFG MY HAND IS PARALYZED!!1!!111. But after a couple of months, this never happened again, although I do occasionally find them a little numb on waking. I can't think of anything I did to make it better.

So while it's a good idea to see your doctor, as you may have some nerve compression that should be treated, this may just be a transient, odd thing your body has decided to do.
posted by maudlin at 9:47 PM on November 29, 2008

These symptoms are often related to a pinched nerve in the back.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:36 PM on November 29, 2008

I think this can be related to carpal tunnel syndrome. When it started happening to me, my physician recommended wearing a cock-up brace at night, and it worked.
posted by pullayup at 11:54 PM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I get this sometimes if I sleep on my back. For this and other reasons that sleeping on my back is unpleasant, I follow the "it hurts when I do this" line of reasoning and sleep on my side.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:57 PM on November 29, 2008

I had a problem with numb hands that went away when I started using a shaped neck pillow. I'm using a $20 neck pillow from Ikea right now, and does the trick. YMMV. But definitely see a doctor.
posted by dws at 11:59 PM on November 29, 2008

The nerve could be being pinched (or otherwise abused) anywhere along its length, AIUI. As sperose and pullayup say, that particular pattern of numbness is a common RSI symptom. I get a similar pattern of numbness on my other two fingers (ulnar nerve) sometimes when I sleep with my arm in a certain weird folded-up position (so I try not to do that).

posted by hattifattener at 12:55 AM on November 30, 2008

As pullayup says, it could be carpal tunnel syndrome. I also had the problem of waking up with numb hands, and I also found that wearing wrist braces at night made a significant difference.
posted by gudrun at 12:59 AM on November 30, 2008

More anecdata: Ditto pinching the median nerve as a possibility. I did a number on my ulnar nerve (that'd be the other two fingers) during a period of intense stress and hunching over my desk where I was sleeping contorted. It was more a once-off that lasted for a week, though.
posted by carbide at 2:00 AM on November 30, 2008

For me, that exact feeling turned out to be carpal tunnel. I left it for too long and found my fingers would start to go numb during the day, I had excruciating pain in my wrist and hand, and I was essentially crippled. I got it diagnosed and was advised to wear a wrist brace to sleep. I did, and all the pain went away.
posted by arcticwoman at 7:34 AM on November 30, 2008

I will add to the carpal tunnel anecdotes.

I will also say that a wrist brace solves the symptoms but not the cause. The cause is a pinched nerve in the back/upper shoulders that is frequently caused by impingement from muscle tightness/knots - caused by RSI and a desk job quite often.

My solution was to attack the source. I got PT and massage therapy for the tightness. Worked a charm. Before I went this route (I was lucky, I had a massage therapist who was well trained in therapeutic massage) I was facing life in a brace and/or surgery to relieve the pain. I am a secretary by trade.

These days I can always tell when I need to book a massage and / or lay on the foam roller to stretch my shoulders [pdf link]. It starts with numbness/tingling in my hands when I'm pushing it really hard on the bike. If I don't address it then, it will manifest itself in numbness at night.

I've also found that sitting on a pilates ball at work is extremely helpful for RSI because it forces me to maintain good posture.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:36 AM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've had this, it was carpal tunnel. Look up articles and diagrams relating to that and also the median and ulnar nerves on google and you'll see if any of it relates to where exactly you are feeling the numbness.
posted by fire&wings at 10:57 AM on November 30, 2008

I get this all the time, my physiotherapist said it was due to muscle tightness in my neck. I have issues with the muscles in my neck getting so tight they constrict both the bloodflow and cause nerve inflammation to my arms. This manifests as numb/tingly hands. As mentioned above, those three fingers are due to inflammation of the median nerve, the ring and pinky are innervated by the ulnar nerve. Depending on how my neck is positioned when I"m sleeping I can get numbness related to either or both nerves. I can also get the numbness wearing clothes/jackets that pull my shoulders in new ways, this leads to a change in how I hold my head (and neck) resulting in numb hands. Massage therapy and regular use of a heating pad really helped me. I'm also thinking of trying of those curvey neck pillows. I would get a referral to a good phsiotherapy clinic and go from there, they were very helpful in helping me deal with this.
posted by LunaticFringe at 12:12 PM on November 30, 2008

Wow, there's a lot of dumb stuff in this thread.

The most common cause of symptoms like this is entrapment neuropathy of the median nerve in the carpal tunnel at the wrist. For all intents and purposes, median nerve, carpal tunnel and nerve pinch are the same thing.

Symptoms like this, in isolation, from a radiculopathy in the neck are not usual.

Go see a neurologist and get tested to get it sorted out. Otherwise, keep blundering around in internet forums full of half-understanding and misinformation.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:33 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had a similar problem with numbness of the whole hand - my doctor suggested that I was sleeping with my arms curled up (i.e., elbows bent at sharp angle) which was compressing a nerve along my elbow. She had me try holding a couple pillows to keep my arms from bending so much and it helped. I also make a conscious effort not to bend them so much which also helps.

I agree with others that you could also be describing a radiculopathy, but the night time limitation may suggest something else.

Best luck - you'll get the best info by working with your doctor.
posted by unclezeb at 6:31 AM on December 1, 2008

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