Why Is My Thumb Numb? Causes & How to Treat It
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Thumb numbness symptoms
Thumb numbness can have many possible causes. This may include injury to any nearby components of the arm, wrist, or hand, temporary nerve compression from arm positioning, nerve root compression in the neck or nerve compression in the wrist (carpal tunnel syndrome), or even some systemic illnesses.
However, if you have numbness or weakness, tingling on one side of the body, facial drooping, headache, vision changes, or confusion, these may be symptoms of a stroke and require emergency medical treatment.
If you have temporary nerve compression, the thumb numbness will resolve on its own. All other thumb numbness requires evaluation by a medical doctor. Splinting, physical therapy, medications, or surgery are all possible options for treating different causes of thumb numbness.
Besides the thumb numbness itself, there may be a presence of the following:
Causes of thumb numbness
As discussed prior, there are several different possible causes of thumb numbness. This may include injury, temporary nerve compression, or nerve compression of the nerve root in the neck or in the wrist with carpal tunnel syndrome. Some systemic illnesses like arthritis or diabetes can cause nerve damage and numbness. Numbness, weakness, or tingling on one side of the body also raises concern for stroke.
Various injuries that can cause thumb numbness are described in further detail below.
- Thumb Injury: This may include a penetrating injury to the thumb like a cut or wound that can damage the nerve that supplies sensation. Fracturing the bones of the thumb may also damage the nerve supply.
- Forearm trauma: Traumatic injury to the forearm can disrupt the nerves that supply the thumb, fingers, and hand. Injury to these nerves may lead to numbness, tingling, or weakness. Typically, penetrating trauma like cuts or knife wounds is more likely to damage nerves. It is also possible for an arm fracture to damage the nerves to the thumb, fingers, and hands, leading to numbness.
- Radiation: The nerves that supply sensation to the hands and fingers travel from the neck through the arm all the way down to their destination. It is possible for them to become damaged at any point along the way. Radiation for treatment of breast cancer typically targets the armpit area, and it is possible for this to damage nerves in the region. This may lead to weakness, numbness, or tingling in the arms, hands, or fingers.
The thumb may be indirectly affected by nerve compression, leading to numbness.
- Temporary compression: Sometimes, compression to the nerve in the armpit or along the elbow can cause temporary numbness, tingling, or pain in the arm, hands, or fingers. Some people refer to this as having a hand or arm that is "asleep." This is common after leaning on the elbow or laying on the arms for a long period of time and will resolve on its own in several minutes.
- Nerve root compression: The nerves that supply the sensation to the arms and hands originate from the spinal cord in the neck. The vertebrae or the intervertebral discs can compress the nerve as it exits the spinal cord, leading to neck, shoulder or arm pain, muscle weakness, numbness, or tingling. Typically, numbness, weakness or tingling will occur only on one side.
- Carpal tunnel: The nerve that supplies sensation to the thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger can be compressed leading to numbness, tingling, and pain in these three digits. This is more common among women, people who are obese and may be related to repetitive hand movements like typing. The symptoms are typically worse at night and may radiate from the thumb and fingers up through the wrist and forearm.
Other causes that may not exclusively affect the thumb may include the following.
- Stroke: Numbness, tingling, or weakness, especially on one side of the body could be symptoms of a stroke. While we typically think of facial droop and weakness on one side as classic stroke symptoms, strokes can cause any neurologic symptoms. If you suspect someone might be having a stroke, seek emergency medical treatment right away.
- Arthritis: Arthritis typically presents with swollen, tender joints in the hands as well as reduced grip strength. Some people with arthritis also complain of numbness or tingling in the hands and fingers. This disease may start with the joints of the hands but typically spreads to other joints like the wrists, elbows, and knees.
- Other systemic diseases: Some systemic diseases like vasculitis or diabetes can cause nerve damage over time. In diabetes, typically the nerve damage starts in the toes and feet but may also affect the fingers and hands. Vasculitis has the ability to damage nerves in the limbs as well. Other symptoms of uncontrolled diabetes include high blood sugar, vision damage, or kidney damage. Symptoms of vasculitis are very nonspecific and may include fever, weight loss, as well as weakness, numbness, or tingling.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
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
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..
Pinched nerve in the neck
A pinched nerve in the neck is also called cervical radiculopathy. It means that a nerve in the neck, at a point where it branches off from the spinal cord, is being compressed by the surrounding bones, muscles, or other tissues.
It can be caused by a traumatic injury, such as from sports or an automobile accident, especially if the injury results in a herniated disk. It may also arise from the normal wear and tear of aging.
Symptoms include sharp, burning pain with numbness and tingling from the neck to the shoulder, as well as weakness and numbness into the arm and hand.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and simple neurological tests to check the reflexes. Imaging such as x-ray, CT scan, or MRI may be done, as well as electromyography to measure nerve impulses in the muscles.
A pinched nerve in the neck often improves with simply a few days or weeks of rest. Physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and steroid injections into the spine can all be very helpful.
Top Symptoms: pain in one shoulder, spontaneous shoulder pain, pain that radiates down arm, pain in the back of the neck, severe shoulder pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Chronic idiopathic peripheral neuropathy
Peripheral neuropathy refers to the feeling of numbness, tingling, and pins-and-needles sensation in the feet. Idiopathic means the cause is not known, and chronic means the condition is ongoing without getting better or worse.
The condition is most often found in people over age 60. Idiopathic neuropathy has no known cause.
Symptoms include uncomfortable numbness and tingling in the feet; difficulty standing or walking due to pain and lack of normal sensitivity; and weakness and cramping in the muscles of the feet and ankles.
Peripheral neuropathy can greatly interfere with quality of life, so a medical provider should be seen in order to treat the symptoms and reduce the discomfort.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests to rule out other conditions; and neurologic and muscle studies such as electromyography.
Treatment involves over-the-counter pain relievers; prescription pain relievers to manage more severe pain; physical therapy and safety measures to compensate for loss of sensation in the feet; and therapeutic footwear to help with balance and walking.
Top Symptoms: distal numbness, muscle aches, joint stiffness, numbness on both sides of body, loss of muscle mass
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Thumb numbness treatments and relief
As long as you are not experiencing severe, widespread numbness, or numbness that is persisting for several hours, treatments can begin at home. However, it is still advisable to consult your physician.
Seek emergency treatment for the following
If you experience stroke-like symptoms associated with your thumb numbness, you need to be treated immediately. Stroke symptoms include:
- Numbness or weakness
- Tingling on one side of the body
- Facial drooping
- Confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
- Severe headache
- Vision changes
Once you are in the care of a medical team, they will determine the best course of action to treat any symptoms or complications.
It is possible that temporary compression to the nerve along the arm is the cause of your thumb numbness. This should resolve on its own in several minutes, and does not require any additional treatment. If the numbness does not go away within the span of several hours, it is advisable to seek medical treatment.
Persistent numbness to the thumb indicates a nerve problem, which should be evaluated by a physician. During or after the consult, he or she may recommend the following treatments appropriate for your condition.
- Wrist splinting: Wrist splinting, particularly at night, may relieve some of the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Wrist surgery: This is the only definitive treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome. It involves releasing the tendon that compresses the nerve to the thumb and fingers, thereby relieving the numbness, tingling, and pain.
- Surgical repair: If you have an injury to the arm, wrist, hand, or thumb that is causing numbness in the thumb, the injury will require medical evaluation and may require surgery.
- Medication: If your physician suspects that a systemic illness like arthritis, diabetes, or vasculitis is the cause of your numbness, they will likely recommend treatment with medication. This may involve adjusting or changing your current medication regimen, or referral to a specialist who can further help manage your illness.
- Physical therapy: If your thumb numbness is due to compression of the nerve root in the neck, yourphysician may recommend physical therapy. Improving range of motion of the neck and increasing flexibility may improve symptoms.
- Neck surgery: If you have persistent symptoms from compression of the nerve root in your neck, yourphysician may recommend surgery.
Questions your doctor may ask about thumb numbness
- What is your body mass?
- 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.)
- Does the numbness affect one hand or both hands?
- Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Dr. Martin is an Emergency Medicine resident at the University of Washington in Seattle. She received her undergraduate degree from Stanford University where she majored in Human Biology, and received her MD from the University of Pennsylvania. She’s interested in Emergency Medical Services and Flight Medicine, and is currently a resident flight physician with Airlift Northwest. In her free time, she enjoys playing ultimate frisbee, cycling, rock climbing, and trail running!
- Numb Hands. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Published 2016. ASSH Link
- Lambert T. Explaining Numbness in Fingers and Thumb. Arthritis Foundation. Arthritis Foundation Link
- Ma CB. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated April 18, 2017. MedlinePlus Link
- Signs and Symptoms of Stroke. National Stroke Association. National Stroke Organization Link
- Thumb Arthritis. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Published 2018. ASSH Link
- Diabetic Neuropathy. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. NIDDK Link
- Vasculitis. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. NHLBI Link