Read below about thumb numbness, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your thumb numbness from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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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.

Characteristics

Besides the thumb numbness itself, there may be a presence of the following:

Thumb Numbness Causes Overview

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 [1]. 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.

Injury

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.

Nerve compression

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 [1-3].

Other causes

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 [4]. 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 [5]. 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 [6]. Vasculitis has the ability to damage nerves in the limbs as well [7]. 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.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Thumb Numbness

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced thumb numbness. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Ulnar Nerve Entrapment of Elbow

    Ulnar Nerve Entrapment of Elbow is the compression of the ulnar nerve, causing numbness and/or weakness in the hands.

    Mild symptoms resolve on their own, severe disease resolves with surgery

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    hand weakness, weakness in one hand, numbness in one hand, pain in one elbow, pain in one forearm
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  2. 2.Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

    The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway filled with ligament and bones at the base of your hand. It contains nerve and tendons. Sometimes, thickening from irritated tendons or other swelling narrows the tunnel and causes the nerve to be compressed. Symptoms usually start gradually, and as they worsen, grasping objects can become difficult.

    Recovery time varies depending on treatment.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    spontaneous shoulder pain, hand weakness, wrist pain, weakness in one hand, pain in both hands
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

    Thumb Numbness Checker

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  3. 3.Pinched Nerve in the Neck

    With age, disks separating the cervical vertebrae (which are the bones of your spine in your neck) lose height as well as lose water content, becoming stiffer. The vertebrae move closer together, and nerves that exit between these bones may be pinched, causing pain to travel down the nerve as it passes through the arm. The pain is usually sharp, and some people report a "pins and needles" sensation or even complete numbness.

    Majority of patients get better with time (weeks to months).

    Rarity:
    Common
    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
  4. 4.Chronic Idiopathic Peripheral Neuropathy

    Nerve damage in the limbs can be caused by diabetes, toxic substances, immune system issues and low vitamin levels. However, in about one of every four cases no cause can be found and then the condition is called 'idiopathic'. Symptoms of nerve damage can be (burning) pain sensations, numbness, tingling and weakness in hands, feet or lower legs.

    This is a chronic condition.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    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.

At-home treatments

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.

Medical treatments

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

  • Q.What is your body mass?
  • Q.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.)
  • Q.Does the numbness affect one hand or both hands?
  • Q.Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our thumb numbness symptom checker to find out more.

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Thumb Numbness Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced thumb numbness have also experienced:

    • 12% Thumb Pain
    • 8% Swollen Thumb
    • 7% Pain in One Shoulder
  • People who have experienced thumb numbness had symptoms persist for:

    • 43% Less Than a Day
    • 24% Over a Month
    • 16% Less Than a Week
  • People who have experienced thumb numbness were most often matched with:

    • 33% Ulnar Nerve Entrapment of Elbow
    • 33% Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
    • 33% Pinched Nerve in the Neck
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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References

  1. Numb Hands. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Published 2016. ASSH Link
  2. Lambert T. Explaining Numbness in Fingers and Thumb. Arthritis Foundation. Arthritis Foundation Link
  3. Ma CB. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated April 18, 2017. MedlinePlus Link
  4. Signs and Symptoms of Stroke. National Stroke Association. National Stroke Organization Link
  5. Thumb Arthritis. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Published 2018. ASSH Link
  6. Diabetic Neuropathy. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. NIDDK Link
  7. Vasculitis. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. NHLBI Link