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If your shoulder is numb, the nerves in your shoulder joint are probably involved. Nerves send messages to and from the body and brain. This allows you to feel different sensations, including pain and temperature changes.
Nerves travel from the neck and back (spine) to your shoulder. They run through your shoulder and upper arm all the way to your fingertips. Nerve damage in the shoulder can cause symptoms in your hand and other areas.
Damage to the shoulder joint can cause numbness with a tingling sensation, like when your foot falls asleep. You may also experience total loss of feeling in the shoulder area.
You may have other symptoms in your shoulder, arm, hand, or fingers as well. Other symptoms can include:
- cold or warmth in the area
- muscle weakness
- numbness or tingling
- pain, aching, or tenderness
Shoulder symptoms can also present in the:
- upper back
- shoulder blade
- collarbone area
Nerve damage can happen for many reasons. These include normal wear and tear and injuries to the shoulder.
A pinched nerve happens when a nerve has too much pressure on it. This can be from:
- muscle, tendons, or bones impinging the nerve
- swelling or inflammation around the nerve
- strain or overuse of any of the surrounding tissue
Pressure can eventually lead to nerve damage. This stops the nerve from functioning normally. A pinched nerve can cause pain, weakness, tingling, or numbness.
Your shoulder nerves come from the spine. Nerve damage here can radiate to the shoulder. This can cause a numb shoulder.
Cervical radiculopathy is often referred to as a pinched nerve in the neck or upper back. On top of numbness, it can also cause pain and weakness.
Sleeping at an awkward angle can pinch a nerve. Poor posture or sitting in a slouched position for long periods can also damage nerves in your neck, back, or shoulders. Here are more signs of a pinched nerve in the shoulder and how to treat it.
Pinch in the back
You can pinch a nerve in the upper back if you injure your spine. Being on your feet and working in hunched or awkward positions can cause it. This is because poor posture can lead to minor misalignments in the back. A pinched nerve can also result from more physically traumatic activities.
Other back injuries that can result in shoulder numbness include injury to the spinal cord and spinal fractures.
A herniated or slipped disc in the spine can also pinch a nerve.
The rotator cuff is a ring of tendons around the shoulder joint. It works like a large elastic band to hold the upper arm bone in the shoulder socket. Normal wear and tear or an injury can strain the rotator cuff.
Overusing the shoulder can damage the rotator cuff. This can happen with repetitive movements during work or exercise. For example, reaching overhead or lifting weights without proper form can injure the rotator cuff.
On the other hand, inactivity can also increase the chances of squeezing the nerves around the rotator cuff.
Bursae are small, fluid-filled sacs inside your shoulder and other joints. They act like ball bearings, cushioning movement between bones. This helps reduce friction.
Bursitis is when the bursae get inflamed and swollen. The swelling irritates the nerves, causing pain and numbness. It can happen in the shoulder if you overuse or injure it. Rotator cuff injuries cause bursitis often, too.
Shoulder arthritis is caused by wear and tear to cartilage within your joints. This is called osteoarthritis (OA).
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) happens when inflammation in your body damages joints. An infection can also lead to rheumatoid arthritis.
Both types of arthritis can damage nerves in your shoulder. This can give you a painful, stiff, or numb shoulder.
Don’t think you have OA or RA? Here are three more types of arthritis that affect the shoulder.
Your shoulder is made up of several bones:
- scapula (shoulder blade)
- humerus (upper arm bone)
- clavicle (collarbone)
In a shoulder dislocation, the humerus partly or completely pops out of the shoulder.
A dislocation can cause a rotator cuff injury and damage the muscles, tendons, and nerves. This can lead to numbness.
If you’ve dislocated your shoulder once, this increases the chances of dislocating your shoulder again.
Spurs are thickened areas of bone that aren’t usually painful. They can develop after an injury to the joints. Sometimes they develop over time for no apparent reason.
Bone spurs can narrow the spaces for nerves, pinching or irritating them. This can make your shoulder stiff, painful, or numb.
Other conditions that can cause numbness in your shoulder include:
A fracture or break in any of the shoulder bones can damage nerves. This includes a fracture to the shoulder blade (though this is rare) and the upper arm. Other likely symptoms include:
People with diabetes are at higher risk of nerve damage. This makes shoulder numbness and other nerve problems more likely.
Sometimes, a numb arm is a symptom of a heart attack. Some people may feel this numbness in the shoulder area. Other symptoms include:
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
Weight and fluid gain during pregnancy can put women at higher risk of a pinched nerve.
A stroke affects blood flow to the brain. This can damage nerves. Symptoms include numbness usually on one side of the body.
Being overweight or obese can put more stress on the circulatory system and the nerves. This can lead to nerve and muscle damage.
In most cases, nerve damage is temporary. A numb shoulder will go away once the nerves heal. This can take several days to months.
Treatment depends on the cause. A pinched nerve is normally treated with pain medication and anti-inflammatories to help relieve symptoms while your body heals.
Home treatments include:
- taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve)
- placing warm compresses on the shoulder, upper back, or neck
- regularly stretching your neck, shoulders, and back
Shop for over-the-counter NSAIDs online.
Your doctor may also recommend treatments like:
- physical therapy
- prescription pain-relief medications
- a brace or sling for your shoulder or arm
- soft neck collar
- steroid drugs
- steroid injections in the joint or spine
A physical therapist may help by guiding you through movements, exercises, and stretches designed for your specific injury.
Movements like raising the arm can relieve nerve pressure. Exercises that strengthen and stretch the neck, back, and shoulder muscles can be helpful. This helps improve nerve health in the shoulder.
Damage from a serious shoulder injury, such as a dislocated shoulder, fracture, or a severe tendon tear, may need surgery or other treatment.
Nerve damage due to diabetes or other conditions also also requires management. This can be done through medications, diet, activity, and support.
Your doctor will start with a physical exam of your shoulder, movements, and sensation. They’ll also ask you about your medical history, recent activity, and overall health.
To help them make a diagnosis, your doctor may use an imaging test. This can include:
- CT scan
Your doctor may also use an electromyography (EMG). This test checks nerve health. It measures how your nerves are functioning at rest and while moving.
This test and others can help your doctor find out if nerve damage is caused by a pinched nerve or by nerve damage due to an underlying condition.
While shoulder injuries may be common, it’s important to get the right treatment as quickly as possible. In most cases, your nerves will heal and relieve all symptoms.
Complete all physical therapy and other treatments even if you no longer have symptoms. This will prevent a numb shoulder from happening again.
Don’t ignore your symptoms. See your doctor if you have a numb shoulder or any other symptoms in your neck, upper back, shoulder, arm, or hand.