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Unexplained numbness in your hands can be an alarming symptom to wake up with, but it’s usually nothing to worry about if that’s your only symptom.

Chances are it’s probably a result of nerve compression due to your sleeping position.

However, if you have numbness in your hands alongside any other unusual symptoms, like numbness elsewhere, make an appointment with your healthcare provider.

Nerve compression happens when something (in this case, the position of your arms) puts extra pressure on a nerve.

If your hand is numb, it’s likely due to compression of your ulnar, radial, or median nerves. Each of these nerves start at your neck. They run down your arms and through your hands.

Read on to learn how to identify different types of nerve compression so you can adjust your sleeping position accordingly.

Your ulnar nerve helps control forearm muscles that allow you to grip things. It also provides sensation to your pinky and the half of your ring finger next to your pinky in both the front and back of your hand.

The ulnar nerve is also responsible for the numbness, pain, or shock you might feel when bumping the inside of your elbow, commonly called your “funny bone.”

Ulnar nerve compression usually results from too much pressure on your elbow or wrist.

So, if you sleep with your arms and hands curled inward, you might feel numbness in:

  • your pinky and the pinky side of your ring finger
  • the part of your palm under these fingers
  • the back of your hand under these fingers

Continued compression of the ulnar nerve can contribute to the development of cubital tunnel syndrome. If pain or weakness start to accompany your numbness, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. They might recommend some home exercises or periodically wearing an elbow brace.

Your median nerve controls muscles and sensation in your index and middle fingers. It’s also responsible for muscles and sensations in the middle-finger side of your ring fingers and in your thumb on the palm side.

Compression of the median nerve also tends to happen at your elbow or wrist, so curling up in the fetal position may leave you with numbness:

  • on the front (palm) side of your thumb, index, middle, and half of your ring finger (the half on the middle finger side)
  • around the base of your thumb on the palm side

Continued compression of the median nerve at your wrist can contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome, though your sleeping position usually won’t cause it on its own.

Your radial nerve controls the muscles used to extend your fingers and your wrist. It’s also responsible for the muscles and sensations in the back of your hand and thumb.

Too much pressure above your wrist or along your forearm can lead to compression of the radial nerve.

Falling asleep on your arm or wrist, for example, could cause numbness:

  • in your index finger
  • on the back side of your thumb
  • in the webbing between your index finger and thumb

Pressure on your radial nerve can also lead to a condition called radial tunnel syndrome, but you typically won’t have numbness in your fingers or hand with this condition. Instead, you’ll most likely experience pain in your forearm, elbow, and wrist.

You can usually manage nerve compression at night by changing up your sleeping position.

Here are some tips that can help:

  • Avoid sleeping in the fetal position. Sleeping with your arms and elbows bent can put more pressure on your nerves and cause numbness. Try tucking your blankets in tightly to make it harder for you to turn over and curl up in your sleep.
  • If you sleep on your stomach, try to keep your arms out at your sides. Sleeping with them under your body can put too much pressure on them and cause numbness.
  • Sleep with your arms at your sides instead of above your head. Sleeping with your arms above your head can cause numbness by cutting off circulation to your hands.
  • Avoid folding your arms under your pillow while you sleep. The weight of your head can put pressure on your wrists or elbows and compress a nerve.

Of course, it’s hard to control your body’s movements when you’re asleep, so you may need some extra help.

If you have trouble keeping your elbows or wrists straight overnight, you could try wearing an immobilizing brace while you sleep. This will prevent your elbows or wrists from moving around.

You can find these braces online for both your elbow and wrist. Or you can make your own brace by wrapping a towel around the area you want to immobilize and anchor.

Whether you purchase a brace or make one, make sure it’s tight enough that it won’t slip off in your sleep but not so tight that it’ll cause more compression.

After a few weeks of use, your body may start to adjust to this new position, and you can forgo wearing the brace to bed.

If you’ve tried sleeping in different positions and using a brace at night and still wake up with numbness in your hands, you may want to make an appointment with your healthcare provider.

Also see a healthcare provider if you have:

  • numbness that lasts into the day
  • numbness in other parts of your body, such as shoulders, neck, or back
  • numbness in both hands or in only one part of your hand
  • muscle weakness
  • clumsiness in your hands or fingers
  • weak reflexes in your arms or legs
  • pain in your hands or arms
warning signs

Keep in mind that sudden numbness can occasionally indicate stroke, particularly when it happens with the following symptoms:

  • weakness or dizziness
  • paralysis on one side
  • confusion or trouble speaking
  • loss of balance
  • severe headache

A stroke requires immediate medical attention. If you have these symptoms, seek emergency medical help.

Hand numbness often results from compression of the radial, ulnar, or median nerves. These nerves are responsible for muscles in your hands and fingers. Too much pressure on them can lead to numbness.

Waking up with numbness only in your hands and fingers typically isn’t a cause for concern if you don’t have other symptoms. Sleeping in a different position or keeping your wrists and elbows straight while you sleep may be enough to improve numbness.

But if you still experience numbness or start to notice other unusual symptoms, make an appointment with your healthcare provider.