It’s common for people to wake up with numbness and tingling in their arm or hands.
Almost everyone remembers their first time waking up with a numb arm. You wake up to discover the complete lack of feeling in one arm immediately, you lift it with the other, and it feels freakishly like dead weight, and then, the panic sets in.
What is going on? Is this a heart attack? How did I break my body?
Thankfully, in most cases, these episodes rarely last for more than 5 minutes. Typically, most instances of mild arm numbness resolve automatically in a short while, with your limb coming back to life shortly, well, not before hitting you with an extreme case of pins and needles.
If you’ve ever been through a similar experience, the chances are that it is the result of some form of nerve compression in your arms.
Arm Numbness from Nerve Compression
Nerve compression is a medical condition that results from prolonged direct pressure on a nerve, which can create symptoms like tingling, pain, numbness, and muscle weakness.
Common causes of nerve compression include poor sleeping positions and habits, bad mattresses and pillows, and the indiscriminate use of intoxicants. Excessive intake of drugs like alcohol can impair the body’s natural defense system that jolts you awake when nerves stay under compression for too long.
In the case of waking up with a numb arm, three primary nerves come into the equation, and compressing any of them overnight will lead to numbness.
Radial Nerve: Your radial nerve is responsible for the muscles and feeling in your thumb and the back of your hand. This nerve also manages the muscles that enable you to extend your fingers and your wrist. Hence, compressing the radial nerve, which typically comes from pressure along the forearm, can lead to numbness in your thumb and index finger.
Median Nerve: Another crucial nerve in the arm region is your median nerve, which controls some of the sensation and muscles in your thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers, as well as parts of the forearm and elbows. Due to its broad reach, compression of the median nerve can result from pressure exerted at any point in its axis, and a common instigator is sleeping in a curled up fetal position.
Ulnar Nerve: The ulnar nerve’s primary role is controlling your forearm muscles, allowing you to have a precise grip on items. Consequently, this nerve is one of the most sensitive in the arm, and it is responsible for the funny bone feeling you sometimes get when you bump the inside of your elbow. Hence, sleeping with your arms curled inward, or any other position that applies excessive pressure to your elbow can lead to the compression of this nerve.
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How to Prevent or Combat Arm Numbness from Nerve Compression
The best way to eliminate the risking of waking up with numbness in your arms from nerve compression is to optimize your sleeping position to exert the minimum possible pressure on your fingers, wrists, forearms, and elbows.
A few tips that can instantly help switch up your sleeping position habits include:
Keep Your Arms Free at Your Sides
The most common way stomach sleepers get their arm nerves compressed is by sleeping with arms and elbows under the body or folding them under the pillow. In either case, the weight of your head or body is sufficient to exert arm-numbing compression by morning.
To reduce the risk of any arm numbness, keep your arms at your side and get mattresses and pillows that provide enough support, so you don’t need to throw your arms and elbows into the mix.
Getting mattresses and pillows with the right amount of support and firmness is also especially important for side sleepers, as a bed that is too firm or a low-support pillow may lead to compression of the hand underneath your body.
Recommendation: A medium-firm or relaxed firm mattress and a firm, supporting pillow is typically the best combination for side sleepers.
Optimize Your Bed to Help Maintain Your Sleeping Position
Going to bed in the ideal position is often not enough to ensure you sleep well, as you typically have little to no control over your body movements through the night. Consequently, overnight, it is quite common for people to default to positions like a fetal curl that poses a significantly higher risk of nerve compression and arm numbness.
To combat this, make sure that your bed is optimized to help keep you in position all night long.
First, ensuring that your bed is comfortable and cradling enough reduces the need to roll during the night. Here, a superior memory foam mattress that contours nicely to your frame can make all the difference.
Second, use your pillows. Pillows can be an excellent way to help optimize your sleeping position and keep you adherent to it through the night.
Pillow Use Tips: For side sleepers, a pillow between your legs will help keep your body in position and your hips square. Adding another pillow between your arms can also provide some cushioning for your arm nerves and increase your chances of staying in place all night.
For back sleepers, a small flat pillow underneath your elbow or forearm provides extra support and reduces the risk of compression your ulnar nerve. A flat pillow under your head, legs, or hips can also help keep you from rolling over during the night and compressing your arms.
For stomach sleepers, pillows provide far less staying power than for other sleeper types. However, flat pillows that support the hips and neck can add some stability. Stomach sleepers can also opt to sleep without pillows. However, here, it is paramount that you get a mattress engineered to provide maximum support to all of your pressure points.
Lastly, for people struggling with consistent arm numbness after sleeping, consider getting a thicker blanket and tucking it in tightly to help keep your position and reduce your chances of curling up or rolling over during the night.
Consider an Immobilizing Brace
If you have regular trouble keeping your elbows or wrists in a comfortable position overnight, you have a significantly higher risk of waking up with some numbness in your arm. One quick way to get over this problem is with an immobilizing brace.
Wearing elbow and wrist braces overnight guarantees that your limbs stay in place and ensures that you wake up without any horror scares. Plus, in most cases, your body can adjust to your new sleeping habits in less than a month, and you can forgo the braces while keeping the benefits.
When choosing a brace, opt for one that is tight enough to stay on all night, but not uncomfortably unyielding as that can in itself cause compression and leave you with a numb arm come morning.
Other Potential Causes
While in most cases, morning arm numbness results from some form of complication from bad sleeping posture, in rare cases, the problem may stem from a more severe source.
If you experience persistent arm numbness that refuses to improve even after multiple position changes and sleep optimization, you should see a doctor as soon as possible for a proper diagnosis. The same applies if you are encountering arm numbness paired with other severe symptoms or numbness in other areas.
Other possible causes of arm numbness after sleeping include:
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Compress the median nerve too often over prolonged periods, and you may end up with carpal tunnel syndrome, a common medical condition that causes constant numbness, tingling, and pain in the fingers, wrist, and sometimes forearms, and can lead to weakness in grip strength.
Since the median nerve is responsible for managing precise movements of your fingers and wrist, activities that require repetitive hand motions, like playing the piano, typing on a keyboard, or operating machinery can cause carpal tunnel over time.
Other possible causes of carpal tunnel syndrome include hereditary, wrist swelling from hormonal changes during pregnancy, obesity, and other underlying health conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and hormonal imbalances.
When detected early, carpal tunnel syndrome can often be fixed with uncomplicated measures like rest, ice, or using wrist splints. However, more severe cases can sometimes require cortisone injections or surgery to prevent permanent nerve damage.
People with diabetes have a significantly higher chance of getting some form of nerve damage than the rest of the population. High blood sugar creates an unfavorable environment for nerve function, and this can sometimes lead to nerve damage in different parts of the body.
With diabetic neuropathy, the areas of the body that are most likely to suffer damage are the legs and the feet. Hence, severe cases of diabetes can often lead to numbness in the arms. Symptoms of the condition include numbness and pain in the arms and legs, which can vary in intensity varying from mild to chronic or even fatal.
However, with diabetic neuropathy, the best bet is a combination of standard blood sugar management with the use of medication to improve the pain and numbness.
Other Forms of Nerve Damage (Peripheral Neuropathy)
Peripheral neuropathy occurs when any of the nerves that transmit information from the central nervous system to the muscles, skin, and organs suffer any form of damage or disease. Peripheral nerve damage typically affects the hands and the feet and can lead to weakness, numbness, or pain in the limbs.
The most common cause of peripheral neuropathy is diabetes. However, the condition can also be triggered by a host of other problems like physical trauma, injuries, toxin exposure, or infections.
While peripheral neuropathy is often incurable, treatments like pain medication, antidepressants, and anti-seizure medicines can help to make symptoms more manageable.
Vitamin B-12 Deficiency
Vitamin B-12 is an essential vitamin that plays a significant role in several core body functions, including the proper operation of your central nervous system, DNA synthesis, and the production of red blood cells.
Consequently, a deficiency of this vital vitamin can lead to a variety of conditions and symptoms, including anemia, muscle weakness, decreased appetite, breathlessness, and numbness, tingling, or pain in the arms and feet.
Older adults, vegetarians and vegans, and people with digestive disorders like inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease have a higher chance of suffering a vitamin B-12 deficiency. However, the condition can be easily combated with supplements, dietary changes, or B12 shots.
Chemotherapy, as well as other intensive treatment plans and medications like heart and blood pressure medication, anticonvulsants, and powerful antibiotics can trigger temporary or permanent nerve damage, which can cause numbness, tingling, and pain in the arms or other body areas.
Alcohol abuse can lead to a form of nerve damage known as alcoholic neuropathy. Furthermore, alcohol overuse can also significantly hamper the body’s natural wake reflex when nerves are under compression over a long period, which can ultimately lead to some nerve damage.
Other diseases that can create complications that cause arm numbness include:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Guillain-barré Syndrome
- Lyme disease
- Hiv and Aids
What to Do
If you experience persistent numbness in your arms with no improvements after optimizing your sleep setup, you should consider visiting a doctor for proper diagnosis. Depending on the cause and severity of the arm numbness, potential treatment may range from rest, exercise, or splints, to more extreme measures like medication, or even surgery.