If you experience numbness in your hand, you’re not alone. Often, people complain of their hand feeling “asleep” after the rest of their body has woken up. What’s going on? One or more of the nerves that run along the arm is likely being either stretched or clamped while your body is in the position to sleep. The most common offender is the ulnar nerve, which runs along the elbow joint in such a way, that it easily ends up being bothered.
Sometimes, people refer to irritation of the ulnar nerve as “hitting your funny bone.” If you’ve hit your elbow on something in a way that hits your ulnar nerve, you realize that it really isn’t funny at all. Regardless of what we call it, numbness resulting from the ulnar nerve often presents itself in the pinky finger and lateral side of the ring finger.
When you sleep with your elbow in a flexed position, especially more than 90 degrees, you put stress on the ulnar nerve. For those who position their arms under their heads or around pillows, sleep in a fetal position, or sleep on top of an elbow that’s flexed, ulnar nerve strain can easily result. Sometimes, our bodies cue us to move in our sleep, lessening the tension on the nerve. However, during an especially sound sleep, we may not respond to such cues. Those that drink alcohol or take sedatives before bed can particularly suffer from decreased awareness of stress during sleep. Because of this phenomenon, some have referred to nerve damage resulting from sustained elbow flexion after alcohol consumption as the “Saturday night special.”
Irritation to the ulnar nerve can become a significant problem if it becomes a chronic issue and goes untreated. While the early stages simply present themselves as numbness, repeated stress to the ulnar nerve will result in the weakening of the muscles surrounding it. To curb the potential for such muscular atrophy, you can respond to numbness in your fingers by attempting to make a sock puppet position with your hand. If you’re unable to do so, you can reduce the stress on your ulnar nerve by taking any or all of the following steps:
1. Intentionally avoid sleeping with your elbow in a bent position.
2. Purchase and wear a soft elbow brace to keep the elbow from excessive flexion while in bed.
3. Try to avoid applying any direct pressure to the elbow — for instance, resting your elbows on a hard surface during mealtimes or while typing.
If those conservative attempts to alleviate the problem don’t give you relief, you should probably visit a healthcare professional to eliminate other possible contributing factors. At the same time, realize that nerve damage takes time to heal, so you shouldn’t expect overnight results from a chronic problem.
PhysioDC of Washington, D.C. is a boutique physical therapy center which helps patients recover, strengthen, and return to healthy living after they travel or on a day-to-day lifestyle. Located in downtown Washington, D.C., PhysioDC is an excellent resource to contact for all joint and body pain. For more information on physical therapy for your body, visit PhysioDC at www.physiodc.com. PhysioDC is located in downtown D.C. at 1001 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 330 (at the corners of K Street and Connecticut Avenue NW).