What are hand cramps?
Cramps in your hand can arise from a number of different causes. Hand cramps develop as a result of conditions affecting muscles and nerves in your hand. Trauma or injury to a nerve in your hand can also cause hand cramps. Even breathing too fast (hyperventilation) can result in hand cramps, as carbon dioxide levels in the blood become too low. Everyday, simple reasons, such as fatigue from overuse, can lead to temporary, acute cramps in the hand.
Hand cramps are usually brief, but they can be severe and painful, and sometimes accompany a tingling or burning sensation (paresthesia). This is common in those with diabetes and others who have suffered damage to the peripheral nerves (peripheral neuropathy, a disorder that causes dysfunction of nerves that lie outside your brain and spinal cord). Dehydration is a common cause for cramping due to low levels of calcium, magnesium, and fluids in the body. Heat exhaustion can lead to dehydration and cramping in the muscles of the hand and other extremities like your legs.
Hand cramps may be acute, such as from a recent injury or muscle fatigue, or develop over time (chronic), resulting from such conditions as kidney disease and dialysis. In some situations, hand cramps can occur as a result of chronic medical conditions that affect your entire body, such as thyroid disorders, dystonia (abnormal prolonged muscle contractions), or diabetes.
While not serious by itself, hand cramping can be a sign of dehydration. Left untreated, severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances can result in shock or coma and may be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of severe dehydration, including a change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out, or a change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions.
If your hand cramp is persistent, recurrent, or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.
What other symptoms might occur with hand cramps?
Hand cramps may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on what’s causing the cramps and any underlying diseases or conditions. Some conditions that frequently affect the hand, such as peripheral vascular disease or muscle fatigue, can cause symptoms in other body systems.
Hand symptoms that may occur along with hand cramps
Cramps in the hand may accompany other symptoms affecting any of the structures of the hand, including:
- Burning or tingling sensation (paresthesia)
- Difficulty moving the hand, wrist or fingers
- Numbness or tingling
- Swelling (edema) of the hand or joints
Other symptoms that may occur along with hand cramps
Hand cramps may accompany symptoms related to other body systems, including:
- Muscle weakness
- Pain, swelling or stiffness of other joints
- “Pins and needles” (prickling) sensation
- Uncontrolled, purposeless, rapid motions (jerkiness)
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, hand cramps may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
- Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
- Muscles twitching, spasms or seizures
What causes hand cramps?
Injury or damage to any of the structures in your hand can cause hand cramps. Diseases that affect the entire body, such as diabetes, dystonia, or peripheral neuropathy, are more complex processes that can lead to hand cramps.
Acute causes of hand cramps
Acute problems that can affect the muscles and nerves of the hand include:
- Anxiety or panic due to hyperventilation
- Damage to a single nerve or nerve group (mononeuropathy) or to multiple nerves (polyneuropathy) that are connected to muscles in the hand
- Dehydration (loss of body fluids and electrolytes, which can be life threatening when severe and untreated)
- Increased levels of phosphate in the body
- Low levels of magnesium or calcium in the body
- Overuse injury, such as computer work or using power and hand tools
- Prolonged heavy exercise
Chronic disease causes of hand cramps
Hand cramps can also be caused by chronic problems that affect multiple body systems including:
- Chronic kidney disease and dialysis
- Diabetes (chronic disease that affects your body’s ability to use sugar for energy)
- Dystonia (abnormal prolonged muscle contractions)
- Peripheral neuropathy (disorder that causes dysfunction of nerves that lie outside your brain and spinal cord)
Questions for diagnosing the cause of hand cramps
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed healthcare practitioner will ask you several questions related to your hand cramps including:
- How long have you had hand cramps?
- When do your symptoms occur?
- Are your symptoms worsened or relieved by movement or specific activities?
- At what age did the hand cramps first appear?
- Does the presence of hand cramps seem variable over weeks to months?
- How much calcium-containing food, such as milk or milk products, do you eat?
- Are your hand cramps worse when you exercise?
- What other symptoms are you experiencing?
What are treatments for hand cramps?
Treatment for hand cramps will depend on the cause, and can include at-home care, medication, and surgical procedures.
Treatment for acute causes of hand cramps
If your hand cramps are an acute reaction limited to the muscles and nerves of the hand, treatments may include:
- Breathing modifications, including pursed-lip breathing, breathing through a single nostril, and focused breathing, to relieve hyperventilation, which can cause hand cramps
- Fluids and electrolytes, to treat dehydration that can result in hand cramping. Sports drinks (without caffeine) are a good option if you need to replace electrolytes.
- Hand and wrist braces, to treat overuse injury and conditions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which can cause hand pain and cramps. More severe cases of carpal tunnel syndrome may require physical therapy or a surgical procedure known as carpal tunnel release.
- Hand exercises and stretches, to strengthen the muscles in the hand and wrist or to restore sensation after nerve damage
- Nutritional supplements, to address hand cramping due to low levels of magnesium or calcium
Treatment for chronic disease causes of hand cramps
Treatment for hand cramps resulting from a chronic condition will focus on addressing the underlying condition first, which will in turn reduce hand cramping symptoms.
Treatments for chronic conditions that cause hand cramps include:
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biologic medications, to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which can cause pain and stiffness in hand joints
- Insulin and glucose monitoring, to manage type 1 and type 2 diabetes, which can cause a complication known as diabetic stiff hand syndrome. Maintaining a healthy blood sugar also helps prevent the progression of diabetic neuropathy, a complication of diabetes that causes numbness, tingling, and pain in the hands and feet.
- Nutrition and fluid management, to manage symptoms of kidney disease, which can include hand cramps due to electrolyte imbalances
- Physical therapy, to improve strength, flexibility, and range of motion in hand joints affected by arthritis
- Thyroid hormone replacement therapy, to treat low levels of thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism), which can result in muscle and joint pain throughout the body, including in the hands
What are the potential complications of hand cramps?
You can minimize your risk of serious complications by following your treatment plan and taking all medications as prescribed.
Although these complications are rare with hand cramps, if caused by dehydration and left untreated, hand cramps can lead to serious consequences including:
- Hypovolemic shock (drop in blood volume and pressure)