Numb, dead, tingling arms and hands…

Do you awaken in the morning, or in the middle of the night, realizing that an arm, hand or both are completely numb, as though dead?

When you poke at the arm or hand with your “good” hand, is it like poking a piece of dead meat?

Several Reasons Why with Sleep Your Arm, Hand or Fingers will “Fall Asleep” and Be Numb and Tingly

I know what it’s like to awaken in the middle of the night with a totally numb arm or hand, but never thought much of it beyond the nuisance of it.

However, I came to realize that awakening with a limb that feels dead or disturbingly tingly can be frightening to some people.

What causes a limb to go numb or dead and/or become tingly while a person sleeps?

“Numbness or tingling in the arms is transmitted by nerves which run from the arm to the brain,” explains Dr. Ravish Patwardhan, MD, nationally-renowned neurosurgeon and founder of Comprehensive Neurosurgery Network LLC.

“This can be the result if a nerve is impaired anywhere along this pathway, either from nerve pressure in the arm (more likely if someone has been in one position for a while and applying constant pressure), or in the spinal cord or brain (rarer and caused by conditions like multiple sclerosis or a stroke).

“One way to tell the difference is to see if the symptoms were position or pressure related.”

In my case, awakening in the middle of sleep unable to feel my numb arm and/or hand, was always the result of falling asleep with the limb bent across my midsection.

This position caused my elbow to press into the bed, which put pressure on the ulnar nerve (the “funny bone” nerve).

Source: BruceBlaus/CreativeCommons

Body Position’s Effect on the Hands and Arms, and Solutions

If you’ve been suffering from numb, tingly arms and hands after falling asleep, take note of the position of your body. 

Where is your elbow?

Is the elbow against anything?

The pressure doesn’t have to be that much, to offend the ulnar nerve.

This nerve is not buried deep within the arm, and hence, even what seems like light pressure on it can cause the entire limb to go dead or numb over a period of a few hours or even less, while you are fast asleep.

The ulnar nerve distributes into the hand and the pinky and fourth finger, so that if it’s receiving pressure at the elbow, this will affect the lower arm, hand and the fingers.

Simply straightening the arm at your side, palm up, will relieve the ulnar pressure.

To prevent my own arms from becoming numb overnight, I make sure to fall asleep with my arms straight at my sides, not folded over my midsection, and palms up, which minimizes pressure of the elbow against the bed.

Another cause of numb hands and fingers, though not the arm, while you sleep is a flexed wrist (meaning, the palm is bent towards the underside of the forearm).

This puts pressure on the median nerve, and the result may be a numb, tingly hand and fingers.

Solution? A wrist splint, available at drug stores and online.


Dr. Patwardhan continues, “If new-onset numbness is found and there is no pressure-related explanation, a stroke could be occurring and medical attention should be sought.”

In the case of a stroke, you will be very weak in the affected arm and may not even be able to move it. The leg on that side of your body will also be impaired.

More Serious Cause

If the symptoms persist even after you get up, but then disappear, you might have suffered what’s known as a transient ischemic attack.

Even though the symptoms of a TIA, by definition, resolve within 24 hours, a TIA is a medical emergency because it signals a possible imminent stroke.

Nevertheless, in general, awakening with a numb, tingling, dead-feeling arm or hand is many times a benign condition, even though it’s very uncomfortable.

Sleeping on your side can compress nerves in the arm closest to the mattress, so keep that in mind when slipping into bed.

Comprehensive Neurosurgery Network provides treatment for neurological disorders of the brain, spine and peripheral nerves.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.  

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