Arm Numbness

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What is arm numbness?

Arm numbness is an abnormal condition in which you feel a loss of sensation in one (unilateral) or both (bilateral) arms. The sensation may extend over the length of the arm and into the hands and fingers.

Arm numbness usually arises from a lack of blood supply to an area or nerve damage. Arm numbness can also result from infection, inflammation, trauma, malignancy, and other abnormal processes. Most cases of arm numbness are not due to a life-threatening condition.

Arm numbness is often associated with or preceded by pain-like pins-and-needles, prickling, or burning sensations called paresthesias. Whereas arm numbness is a loss of sensation, paralysis involves a loss of movement, with or without the loss of sensation in the area.

Depending on the cause, the loss of sensation can disappear quickly, such as numbness from extremely cold temperatures that will fade away once you move to a warmer environment. Numbness can occur suddenly or progress slowly. Chronic arm numbness generally indicates some level of damage to the nerves. Arm numbness may also be worse at night, which is common for paresthesias in general.

Because numbness in the arm or numbness in general may be a symptom of a disease, disorder or condition, you should talk with your medical professional about any unusual sensations or arm numbness that lasts more than a few minutes.

If you experience arm numbness with paralysis, confusion, arm or hand weakness, or slurred speech, seek immediate medical attention. If your arm numbness is persistent, recurrent, or causes you concern, contact a medical professional.

What other symptoms might occur with arm numbness?

Arm numbness may occur with other symptoms or a combination of symptoms. For example, numbness, tingling and itchiness in combination may be symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Arm numbness due to a bulging cervical disk (in your neck) can be associated with extreme pain that extends down the shoulder, arm, and certain fingers.

Symptoms that may occur along with arm numbness

Arm numbness may occur with other symptoms including:

  • Burning feeling

  • Cold arm or fingers

  • Increased arm numbness or tingling while typing or writing

  • Itching feeling

  • Muscle spasms

  • Neck pain

  • Pins and needles (prickling) sensation

  • Rash

  • Sensitivity to touch

  • Shoulder, arm, hand, or finger pain

  • Twitching

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, arm numbness may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Get immediate help if you, or someone you are with, are exhibiting any of these life-threatening symptoms:

What causes arm numbness?

Arm numbness can be a symptom of a wide variety of diseases, disorders or conditions that either restrict blood flow or cause injury to the nerves.

Temporary arm numbness can occur after prolonged pressure on a nerve or nerves, such as due to fine motor activities (drawing) or sleeping the wrong way on your arm.

Arm numbness can occur with moderate to serious orthopedic and circulatory conditions, as well as disorders and diseases that damage the nervous system. In some cases, numbness is a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated as soon as possible in an emergency setting.

Whether one or both arms are numb will help diagnose the underlying cause. Bilateral arm numbness is more likely to be caused by body-wide disorders including diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or pernicious anemia. Numbness in one arm can be due to a pinched nerve, broken bone, or stroke.

Circulatory causes of arm numbness

Arm numbness can be caused by lack of blood flow to the arm due to such conditions as:

  • Arteriovenous malformation (tangled knot of arteries and veins)

  • Buerger’s disease (acute inflammation and clotting of arteries and veins)

  • Frostbite or extremely cold temperatures

  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD, also called peripheral vascular disease, or PVD, which is a narrowing of arteries due to a buildup of fat and cholesterol on the artery walls, which limits blood flow to the extremities)

Orthopedic causes of arm numbness

Arm numbness may also occur because of moderate to serious orthopedic conditions that injure or damage the nerves including:

  • Broken bone or a cast that is too tight

  • Cervical spondylosis (degenerative disk disease in the neck)

  • Herniated disk

  • Neck or spinal cord injury

  • Nerve entrapment or nerve pressure (such as from sleeping on your arm)

  • Osteoporosis

Neurological causes of arm numbness

Arm numbness caused by nerve compression or damage may be due to such conditions as:

  • Alcoholism

  • Diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage due to high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes)

  • Heavy metal poisoning such as lead poisoning

  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)

  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord)

  • Peripheral neuropathy (disorder of the peripheral nerves)

  • Spinal cord injury or tumor

  • Stroke

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (a disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)

  • Transverse myelitis (neurological disorder causing inflammation of the spinal cord)

  • Vitamin B12 deficiency (as in pernicious anemia)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of arm numbness

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will most likely ask you several questions related to your arm numbness including:

  • Where are you feeling numb?

  • When did the numbness start?

  • How long does the numbness last?

  • Are there any activities that cause the numbness?

  • Are you experiencing other sensations, such as pain, burning or itchiness?

  • Do your arms, hands or fingers feel cold or warm?

What are the potential complications of arm numbness?

Any complications associated with arm numbness can be progressive and vary depending on the underlying cause. Because numbness can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in complications and permanent damage. It is important to contact your health care provider when you experience any kind of persistent numbness or other unusual symptoms. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important to follow the treatment plan outlined by your health care provider to reduce your risk of potential complications related to arm numbness, such as:

  • Amputation

  • Arm disability

  • Inability to perform daily tasks

  • Loss of strength

  • Paralysis

  • Permanent loss of sensation

  • Permanent pain

  • Poor quality of life

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 2
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  3. Numbness and tingling. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.  http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003206.htm