Hand weakness can be a frustrating condition and is often caused by compressed nerves and damage to the tendons of the hand. Carpal tunnel syndrome is usually the cause of a weak grip. Other causes of weakness in hands include inflammation of the hand joints, a conditions known as tennis or golfers elbow, or an injury to the hand. Read below for other causes and treatment option for your loss of hand strength.
Weakness in hands explained
Does it seem like carrying your laptop bag used to be easier? Maybe your handshake grip used to be firmer? If the answer to those questions is yes, then you could be experiencing hand weakness. The ability to perform many everyday tasks is reliant on the power of our hands.
Weakness does not necessarily signal the presence of pain, but there is the possibility of several common symptoms that coincide with weakness.
Common characteristics of hand weakness
Hand weakness can likely be described by the following.
- Weak grip
- Inability to carry otherwise manageable items
- Hand pain
- Clumsiness using the hands
- Hand fatigue
Between all the bones, joints, nerves, muscles, and ligaments, there is a lot of complexity in hands. The capabilities of the hand are also greatly influenced by connections to the arm and shoulder. The complexity of the hand allows it to do amazing things but also leaves it prone to issues. Our hands can also get rigorously tested throughout the day, resulting in even further health challenges.
Many medical professionals analyze grip strength when assessing overall health. If the hands are weak, then there is the possibility that other, more serious, problems exist with overall health.
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Why are you experiencing hand weakness?
We all experience weakness at one point or another. The cause may simply be fatigue from over-exertion or maybe the battle against a disease leaves us debilitated. Hand weakness, while far more localized than whole body issues, is no different. The causes can vary in severity and commonly include:
Environmental causes may be related to lifestyle habits or certain exposures.
- Repetitive trauma: Excessive, repetitive use of the hands can result in damage to the nerves reduced function and weakness. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a product of repetitive hand motions.
- Nerve damage: Varying types of palsy's resulting from nerve damage also cause hand weakness.
- Direct trauma or injury: Similarly, direct trauma to the hand can cause weakness through damage to bones, muscles, and ligaments.
Inflammatory causes of hand weakness include the following.
- Autoimmune: Joint inflammation is often caused by disease. Arthritis, for example, is a well-known perpetrator of hand weakness through joint and soft tissue inflammation. Several types of arthritis, including rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, typically affect the hand and cause weakness.
- Cardiovascular: Issues with the cardiovascular system can lead to inflammation throughout the body, including the hands, and subsequently, weakness.
Motor control capabilities are dictated by neurons. Hand weakness ensues when a variety of syndromes — known as neuron syndromes — affect these neurons.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition of numbness and tingling in the hand and arm caused by compression of the mediannerve as it travels through the carpal tunnel. Causes include overuse of the wrist and hand, especially highly repetitive activities such as typing or wo..
Ulnar nerve entrapment of elbow
Ulnar nerve entrapment of elbow is also called cubital tunnel syndrome. The ulnar nerve begins at the spinal cord in the neck and runs down the arm into the hand. This very long nerve can become compressed, or entrapped, by other structures at certain points along the way. Entrapment often happens in the cubital tunnel, which is the narrow passage at the inside of the elbow.
The exact cause for entrapment may not be known. Fluid buildup and swelling inside the elbow; previous elbow fracture or dislocation; or leaning on the elbow for long periods of time can put pressure on the ulnar nerve inside the cubital tunnel.
Symptoms include numbness and tingling of the hand and fingers, sometimes leading to weakness and even muscle wasting in the hand.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination, x-ray, and nerve conduction studies.
Treatment begins with wearing a supportive brace and adjusting activities to avoid further irritating the nerve. Surgery is usually not needed unless the nerve compression is causing weakness and loss of use in the hand.
Top Symptoms: hand weakness, weakness in one hand, numbness in one hand, pain in one elbow, pain in one forearm
Urgency: Primary care doctor
De quervain's tenosynovitis
De Quervain's tenosynovitis is a painful condition affecting the tendons on the thumb side of the wrist. If you have de Quervain's tenosynovitis, you will feel pain upon turning your wrist, grasping anything, or making a fist.
Top Symptoms: hand numbness, thumb pain, hand weakness, weakness in one hand, numbness in one hand
Symptoms that always occur with de quervain's tenosynovitis: thumb pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis)
Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is an inflammation of the tendons that connect the muscles of the forearm to the side of the elbow.
It is caused by using the arm in repetitive motion, such as swinging a tennis racquet. The forearm muscles become weakened and damaged from overuse, putting strain on the tendons.
Most susceptible are people over 30 who work using overhead motion of the arm. Auto mechanics, painters, carpenters, and butchers are often affected, as well as anyone playing racquet sports,.
Symptoms begin gradually and consist of burning pain on the outside of the elbow, with loss of grip strength.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination with simple neurological tests that use the forearm muscles, such as shaking hands. X-rays or MRI may also be ordered.
Treatment involves rest; nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers; physical therapy; an arm brace just below the elbow; and sometimes steroid injections. Surgery is rarely needed.
Using the right equipment, as well as proper technique for overhead motions of the arm, can help prevent the condition.
Top Symptoms: elbow pain, pain in one elbow, hand weakness, pain in the thumb side of the elbow, elbow pain from overuse
Symptoms that always occur with tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis): elbow pain
Repetitive strain injury of the hand
Repetitive strain injury of the hand is caused by consistent repetitive use.
Top Symptoms: hand numbness, hand weakness, hand pain from overuse
Symptoms that always occur with repetitive strain injury of the hand: hand pain from overuse
Symptoms that never occur with repetitive strain injury of the hand: hand injury, severe hand pain
Golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis)
Medial epicondylitis (Golfer's Elbow) is similar to it's opposite cousin (Lateral Epicondylitis- Tennis Elbow). Both are caused by the overuse of the elbow, but this one is more frequent in golfers, bowlers, archers, and weight lifters.
Top Symptoms: elbow pain, pain in one elbow, elbow pain from overuse, pain in the pinky side of the elbow
Symptoms that always occur with golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis): elbow pain
Wrist bone (scaphoid) fracture
A fracture is the medical term for a broken bone. When a person falls on their outstretched hand, the scaphoid is the bone that is most likely to break. It is located on the thumb side of the wrist, in the area where the wrist bends.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: hand weakness, swollen thumb, wrist pain that gets worse when gripping something, difficulty moving the thumb, wrist pain from an injury
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Kienbock Disease is a condition where the blood going to one of the small bones in the wrist is disrupted, causing the bone to die and the wrist to become stiff and painful. The cause is not known but may be related to trauma to the wrist.
Top Symptoms: hand weakness, pain in the back of the wrist, wrist pain from an injury, wrist pain that gets worse when gripping something, difficulty moving the wrist
Symptoms that always occur with kienbock disease: wrist pain from an injury, pain in the back of the wrist
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Becker Muscular Dystrophy (BMD) is a genetic condition that leads to progressive muscle wasting due to a mutation in the gene that makes a muscle-supporting protein called dystrophin.
BMD typically presents as a less severe form of muscle wasting than the simil..
At-home and professional treatments for hand weakness
New hand weakness should not be ignored. The treatment may be as easy as a rest and recovery period or could involve advanced medical procedures.
Treatment for hand weakness that can begin at home includes the following.
- Immobilization: Simply limiting the use of the affected hand can help build strength. Splints and braces can help provide stability and promote improved functionality.
- Exercise: Basic exercises for the hand can help restore strength and encourage recovery from injury.
- Over-the-counter medications: Tylenol (acetaminophen) or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or aspirin may help reduce hand weakness symptoms caused by inflammation or pain.
When to see a doctor
It is always recommended that a medical professional is contacted if any of the following are experienced:
- Persistent weakness accompanied by pain
- Inability to move or bend fingers or wrist
- Involuntary muscle contractions
- Associated hand clumsiness or abnormal sensation
The following treatments may be recommended after consulting your physician.
- Prescription medications: Advanced cases of inflammation may require your doctor to prescribe pain medications for advanced pain. Corticosteroids can be taken orally or injected to control inflammation.
- Surgery: Procedures of varying degrees, such as tendon transfers, may be required to fully restore strength in significant cases.
- Physical therapy: Licensed physical therapists can develop programs to help strengthen muscles and tendons. A diagnosis from a doctor followed by a program developed by a licensed physical therapist to treat the specific cause of your hand weakness symptoms will further encourage improved strength.
Whether you need to use your hands constantly for work or responsibilities around the home, hand pain due to repetitive use may be hard to prevent. However, resting the hands when possible and being more mindful can help. Try to take short breaks from typing or other labor for a few minutes every hour.
Questions your doctor may ask about hand weakness
- What is your body mass?
- Have someone feel for your pulse (at the wrist) on the side of your body that hurts. Now, turn your head to that side. Does the pulse go away? (This is known as the Adson's test.)
- Turn your head toward the side of your body that is hurting. Lift your head up as someone else pushes down on your head. Does this cause greater pain in your upper body? (This is known as Spurling's test.)
- Lightly tap on your inner wrist. Does this cause your symptoms to reappear?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
- Saguil A. Evaluation of the patient with muscle weakness. American Family Physician. 2005;71(7):1327-1336. AAFP Link
- Blahd WH Jr, Romito K, Husney A, eds. Finger, hand, and wrist problems, noninjury. University of Michigan: Michigan Medicine. Updated September 23, 2018. U of M Health Link
- Carpal tunnel syndrome fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Updated July 13, 2018. NINDS Link
- Arthritis of the Hand. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Reviewed Dec. 2013. OrthoInfo Link
- Motor neuron diseases fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Updated July 6, 2018. NINDS Link