Ulnar nerve and numbness
February 10, 2012 6:24 PM   Subscribe

Ulnar nerve issues: I'm constantly waking up in the middle of the night with my pinky and ring finger, along with that part of my right hand going numb or asleep. I've had enough. YANMD, but what can I do?

I've been waking up 4-5 nights a week, either in the morning or the middle of the night with my right hand going numb. Specifically, my pinky and half of my ring finger along with that part of the hand down to my wrist being numb. This definitely points to issues with my ulnar nerve. I figured out that the reason seems to be that I tend to have my arm under my head when I sleep. Some nights my half hand goes completely asleep and I get woken up by the pins and needles sensation when I've moved. I haven't had any numbness in the other parts of my hand. The numbness is now starting to last into the day a bit before it gets better, which is making me think I'm starting to get nerve damage. I don't have any issues with my hand functioning or going numb during the day despite being on a computer most of the day.

I'm wondering if anyone has any ways of keeping my hand from going numb through the night. I'm trying to change positions while I sleep to prevent me from sleeping on this arm, and as well have replaced my pillows. Often I'm going back to that position with my arm under my head unconsciously. Should I go for a wrist or elbow brace next? Any other ideas?

Thanks as always.
posted by Mister Fabulous to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I had this when I had Cubital tunnel syndrome. The best thing to do is get an elbow brace. Something that's noticable on your arm, something that you feel. And sleep on your side and try not to curl that arm up wherever you do now. The brace lets you remember it's there and to keep it straight. every time you half way wake up at night you'll know it's there and it will remind you.

I did all that to no avail. Then it became numb all the time. If that happens get yourself to an elbow/hand orthopedist ASAP. Your muscle and coordination wastes away far faster than you would think. In six weeks my left arm was basically unusable for anything.
posted by sanka at 6:37 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had this, and it was a pinched nerve in my elbow caused primarily by bad ergonomics at my desk. My symptoms were primarily at night, but the cause was my daytime behavior. You need to see a doctor to get diagnosis and treatment, because these problems can be, as you seem to be seeing, degenerative. In my case, for example, the doctor told me that an over-the-counter brace I'd been using was actually making it worse. You need to see a doctor to find out where the problem is and what to do about it.
posted by decathecting at 6:39 PM on February 10, 2012

Seconding trying the elbow brace. I had a similar issue where I was folding my arms up in an awkward position and the outside edge of one or both of my hands would fall asleep. The elbow brace made me keep the arm straight and the problem went away. I just got one of the soft neoprene ones -- just enough that it was awkward to bend the joint too much.

If the elbow brace doesn't fix it pretty much immediately and 100% of the nights you have the brace on, definitely doctor time.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:43 PM on February 10, 2012

I had cubital tunnel syndrome too and second the advice of using a splint/brace. The cheap and easy way is to use a small hand towel rolled/folded up and secured to your inner elbow with an elastic knee support ( the kind that is like a tube of elastic ), that will keep you from bending your arm at night.

Also, there might be some inflammation in the tendons in your elbow from your daily activities. It may be helpful to ice 20 minutes on- 20 minutes off for a few cycles before bed and take an NSAID.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 6:48 PM on February 10, 2012

You might require a physical therapist to identify what nerve does that to your pinky. In my case it was bad posture on my neck that caused a numb pinky.
posted by francesca too at 6:53 PM on February 10, 2012

As you'll see from my Ask history I have a lot of experience with damage to the ulnar nerve. I would go to a physical therapist (ideally, a hand therapist) first; they'll have some suggestions about how to sit, how to sleep, how to use your computer, etc., and they can give you good advice about whether and how urgently you need to seek medical attention. If that doesn't work, you need to see a specialist. You'll get an EMG (kind of like acupuncture, except with electric shocks) so they can figure out how much damage there is to the nerve.

In my case, they told me I needed to have surgery to move the nerve pronto. And that's what I did. Kind of scary, but not as scary as slowly losing the use of the hand. That was about 10 months ago, and the feeling in that side of my hand has mostly returned. And the ulnar transposition surgery, thanks to millions of people with bad desk ergonomics, has become a totally routine procedure.

Also: if your hand feels clumsy or weak at all, I'd skip the PT and go straight to the doctor. Is it harder than it used to be to reach into your pocket with that hand and get your keys, or to turn the key in the lock? Hold your hand out with fingers up and have a friend try to gently pull your right pinky away from your other fingers. Can you hold your pinky in place? If not, it is doctor time.
posted by escabeche at 7:22 PM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had a similar issue last year. Turned out to be a pair of ruptured discs in my neck - the result was a pinched nerve and numbness in both hands, not just one.

After having surgery to remove the bad discs, problem solved. Six months later, I have no numbness on either side.
posted by Telpethoron at 8:26 PM on February 10, 2012

True, there is a possibility of having this be a neck issue too. I have had several herniated discs in my neck. I am currently working through a radial nerve thing in my neck.

I have had both cubital tunnel and a herniated cervical disc of the ulnar nerve. If it's only your hand that gets numb, that's an elbow thing. If it gets up your arm or forearm, that's a cervical thing. Regardless, you'll get an EMG study, which is not fun.
posted by sanka at 8:48 PM on February 10, 2012

Actually, I thought almost all adults have this at some time or frequently--Unless you are noticing changes in the strength of the affected fingers, pain interrupting sleep or daytime routines or ongoing change in sensation after waking I would not (and have not) done anything. I have had this for 20+years and assumed it was just one of those things.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:34 AM on February 11, 2012

Try to loosen up your tricep and forearms with gentle stretching and massage.
posted by callmejay at 6:59 AM on February 11, 2012

The same sensation was cubital tunnel-related for me, too. I wore a small knee brace backwards on my elbow when I slept until I retrained myself to sleep in a different position. Haven't had it since.
posted by summerstorm at 7:47 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: sleeping in a wrist (not elbow) splint helped keep my pinky and ring finger from falling asleep when i had this same problem a couple years ago. (i had been bending my wrist to tuck the hand under my head.) the problem went away in a few months without PT or doctors.
posted by nevers at 12:56 PM on February 11, 2012

The first time this happened to me, I switched my mouse to my other hand and it went away. Trying this for a week or two is unlikely to make your situation worse.
posted by Lebannen at 4:44 PM on February 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all for the responses. Turns out the wrist brace was the winner of things I've tried. I woke up one night and realized I was tweaking my wrist rather hard and started with a wrist brace. I've been good for three nights straight.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:34 AM on February 17, 2012

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