The hands, arms and wrist have sensation due to presence of nerves in them. Any damage to these nerves causes problems in sensation such as numbness, irritation, tingling and burning sensations in the arms.
Numbness in the Arms
Numbness means loss of sensation. It can take place in different parts of body including arms.1 Numbness can occur in either one or both arms. It is caused due to lack of blood supply or injury to the nerves which give sensation to the hands. Numbness in the arms can develop slowly or rapidly. Chronic arm numbness indicates injury to the nerve.
Symptoms Associated with Numbness in the Arms
- Cold arms
- Tingling or prickling sensation
- Muscle spasms
- Pain in the entire hand
Other serious symptoms include:
- Loss of consciousness for a brief moment
- Problems in breathing and walking
- Changes in vision.
Prognosis of Numbness in the Arms
Prognosis (or outcome) is good in case of mild numbness in the arms; while it may be worse in complicated cases where severe nerve damage has occurred.
Causes of Numbness in the Arms
The numbness of arms can be caused due to variety of reasons
- Temporary arm numbness occurs due to:
- Cold temperature and fades away on return of warm temperature
- When an arm is pressed due to wrong sleeping position
- When it is kept on the back of the chair for prolonged time periods.
- Orthopedic Causes of Arm Numbness:
- It occurs due to moderate to serious orthopedic conditions that injure or damage the nerves including:
- Broken arm
- Neck or spinal cord injury
- Cervical spondylosis
- Carpal tunnel syndrome where the ligaments of wrist and joints in arm become inflamed (swelling).
- Raynaud’s Syndrome in which patients suffer from numbness typically in the fingers and it progresses towards the arms. These patients show cold digits, discoloration and these symptoms become worse during winter.
- Circulatory Causes of Arm Numbness
- It occurs due to lack of blood supply to the arm
- Frostbite due to extreme cold temperatures
- Periphery artery disease
- Tangle of arteries and veins due to Arteriovenous malformations
- Neurological Causes of Arm Numbness
Other physiological disorders such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis or anemia can also cause bilateral arm numbness. While a pinched nerve or broken bone causes numbness in one arm.
Risk Factors for Numbness in the Arms
- Age: Elderly people are more prone to bone damage and cervical spondylosis which can cause numbness in the arms.
- Gender: Females generally suffer from osteoporosis as compared to men which can lead to numbness of arms.
- Weather Conditions: People staying in extreme cold conditions often experience numbness.
- Diet: Excessive sugar intake leads to diabetes which can cause neuropathy. Similarly, less of diet leads to essential vitamin, mineral and iodine deficiency leading to neurological problems thereby causing arm numbness.
Complications of Numbness in the Arms
Some of the complications of numbness in arms are:
- Loss of ability to perform daily activities
- Permanent loss of sensation
- Constant pain.
Diagnosis of Numbness in the Arms
The doctor records the complete history and performs physical examination. It is followed with questions regarding the symptoms and how it affects the daily life. The patient is asked questions regarding the underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and osteoporosis.
To know the exact cause of numbness in the arms, the doctor recommends a number of tests which includes:
- X-Ray of the neck to know if there is arthritis
- Specialized imaging tests such as MRI and CT scans
- Electrical nerve tests like electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction test can show the nature and extent of nerve damage. This test is important to evaluate the condition due to brachial plexus injury.
- Blood tests done to reveal levels of calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, vitamin B12, thyroxine and sex hormones.
Treatment for Numbness in the Arms
Numbness of arm can be caused by different medical conditions. Hence, to give a specific treatment, the cause should be determined.
- Medications to treat numbness in arm include non-steroidal anti-rheumatic drugs, anti-depressants and pain killers.
- Resting the numb arm for extended time periods are recommended.
- Physical therapy may relieve stress on muscles tendons.
- Acupressure, acupuncture, Trans cutaneous nerve stimulation may be used to treat numbness in arms in certain cases.
- Ointments which can soothe pain and relieve arm numbness to be applied.
- Improving the diet contents to cure numbness caused due to malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies.
- In case of heart attack and stroke one should seek immediate medical attention.
Prevention of Numbness in the Arms
The following measures need to be taken to prevent arm numbness:
- Avoid putting hand at the back of the chair
- Avoid sleeping with arm under the body, or under the pillow
- One should not rest elbows on desk for long period of time
- People residing in low temperature regions should wear warm gloves to prevent frost bite.
The hand gets sensation due to presence of nerves in it. Any injury to these nerves leads to loss of sensation and numbness. The reason for nerve injury or other causes of numbness in the arms can be varied. Hence one needs to determine the appropriate cause so that the right treatment can be given. However, in some complicated cases such as paralysis and amputation, numbness of arm cannot be completely treated.