If you’ve ever woken up with numb, tingly fingers, you already know it’s kind of (okay, very) scary. Even if it’s not necessarily painful, it is alarming when your hands feel paralyzed and you can’t seem to wake them up. The good news is that there’s probably no need to panic. This is actually pretty common and most likely has a simple explanation, says Raleigh-based orthopedic surgeon Joseph Schreiber, MD.
See, when you fall asleep in a funky position with your elbows and wrists bent, the passageways containing the nerves in your arm get tighter. This can cause the nerves to get pinched, Dr. Schreiber explains. The resulting pins and needles sensation is basically your body’s way of telling you that something’s not right. The solution is fairly simple: Just reposition your arm, give it a little shake to get the blood flowing again, and you should be good to go.
That being said, if you’re waking up with prickly fingers on the regular or it’s disrupting your sleep and comes along with other symptoms, Dr. Schreiber recommends paying your doctor a visit. It can be a sign of something more significant, such as diabetic nerve pain, issues with your spine, pregnancy, or—the most common culprits—carpal tunnel syndrome or cubital tunnel syndrome.
The difference between the two syndromes is distinguished by exactly which fingers are feeling tingly. With carpal tunnel syndrome, it’s usually the thumb, index, and middle fingers that lose sensation. And with cubital tunnel syndrome, the ring and pinky fingers are the ones that are affected. Either way, regular numbness is serious business and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“If people ignore this for a long time, they can start to develop other problems such as weakness or more permanent numbness and tingling,” Dr. Schreiber says. In the long run, this can damage the nerve and make it untreatable. Surgery to release the nerve is usually the last resort. Most cases, he says, it can be totally reversed when caught early.
So if you have a hunch that your nighttime numbness is caused by carpal or cubital tunnel syndrome, go see your MD and then give Dr. Schreiber’s three tips for tingle relief a try.
Read on for 3 doctor-approved tips for preventing numbness in fingers while sleeping.
How to ease the symptoms of carpal and cubital tunnel syndrome
1. Do gliding exercises
To keep the nerves in your arms and hands nice and healthy, Dr. Schreiber recommends doing gliding exercises a few times throughout the day. For carpal tunnel syndrome, start by making a fist with your thumb facing you. Then open your hand into a relaxed neutral position and bend your wrist back so your palm is facing up. While in this position, extend your thumb out, then rotate your wrist so your palm is now facing away from you and gently pull down your thumb with your other hand. As you go through the positions, be sure to hold each for five seconds. Then repeat the entire series three to five times.
For cubital tunnel syndrome, the gliding exercises Dr. Schreiber recommends target the ulnar nerve, aka the funny bone nerve, that runs through the inside of your elbow, which is connected to your ring and little finger. To do it, extend your arm straight out to the side with your palm facing up. Then bend your elbow toward you so your palm is now facing you. Next, rotate your wrist so your palm faces away from you, bend your wrist back so your fingers point towards you, and then do a swivel motion with your wrist so your fingers point away from you. Lastly, extend your arm straight out to the side again keeping your wrist bent back and your fingers pointed to the floor. Hold each position for at least five seconds and then rinse and repeat three to five times.
2. Wear a brace or splint at night
To prevent pinching the nerves while you sleep, Dr. Schreiber also suggests sleeping with a brace or a splint that will help keep your wrist and elbow straight throughout the night.
For carpal tunnel syndrome, you can easily find a wrist brace online or get one from your doctor. And with cubital tunnel syndrome, the goal, he says, is to keep your elbow straight. You can do this by simply wrapping a towel around your elbow and using bandages or tape to keep it in place.
3. Modify your activities during the day
Certain daytime activities could also be irritating the nerves in your arm and making your fingers feel tingly. One of the most common causes of irritation to the median nerve, the major nerve that passes through the carpal tunnel, is lots of computer use. “Having your wrist in a good, neutral position when you’re at a computer and using a keyboard and a mouse can minimize the irritation,” Dr. Schreiber says.
With cubital tunnel syndrome, things like talking on the phone or resting your elbow on an arm rest for too long can irritate the ulnar nerve. The solution? Switch up your position often—really, is there anything a little movement can’t make better?
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