Dear Alice,

I have experienced numbness in my left, actually 3 fingers of my left hand. It happens off and on and the numbness will last 2-3 hours. It feels as if the fingers have "fallen asleep" and I've tried everything from shaking my hand to jumping around to get blood back to the fingers. Could this be a blocked blood vessel located in my arm/hand? I have had this problem for 2-3 months and it does not seem to get any better. I imagine I will see a doctor, but would like to hear your explanation.

Dear Reader,

If your digits keep falling asleep, maybe they're just tired! Alas, that’s not possible, but the numbness and tingling you’re feeling does have a name: paresthesia. Although there are many potential causes of your tingling fingers, a blocked blood vessel (as you indicated) likely isn’t the culprit. Noted causes of the numbness like what you've described include: a vitamin deficiency; a pinched or constricted nerve in your wrist, shoulder, or neck; carpal tunnel syndrome; thoracic outlet syndrome; or a side effect from medication. Each of these could lead to long-term discomfort, so your intention to visit a health care provider is right on track. Your provider will be able to assess what’s happening and recommend the appropriate treatment.

In the meantime, it’ll be good to explore what may have changed in your life since you started experiencing the tingling, so consider asking yourself some questions: What typically constitutes your diet? Could you be lacking in any nutrients? Have you recently started any new medications? Have you tried any new physical activities or moved in a new way in the last few months? On the other hand, do you regularly participate in an activity requiring repetitive movement or awkward positioning of the wrist, such as typing for long periods of time or consistently lifting heavy objects? Depending on your answers to these questions, the numbness you’re experiencing could be due to one of the following conditions:

  • Vitamin B12 deficiency: Often resulting in numbness in the hands and feet, a vitamin B12 deficiency may be caused by a diet low in B12-rich foods (such as meat, eggs, and dairy), chronic alcoholism, or intestinal disorders that make it difficult to absorb vitamins. These symptoms and others, such as paleness, diarrhea, and fatigue, occur because B12 is a vitamin essential in nervous system functioning and production of blood cells. When the body doesn’t get enough of the vitamin, it can cause nerve damage that then potentially causes paresthesia. Treatment for this condition includes supplements taken orally or in shot form. If you're looking for a solution in the interim, incorporating more foods high in B12 into your diet might help.
  • Pinched nerve: From head to toe, human bodies are connected by a complicated web of muscles, nerves, ligaments, tendons, and all sorts of other great elements. Sometimes when one part of the body is injured, it's felt somewhere else. The numbness you’re feeling in your hands could be the result of a pinched nerve in your wrist, neck, or spine. Stretching and practicing relaxation techniques may help loosen tight muscles that could be contributing. If that doesn't help, aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs have been found to help ease the problem. However, if the numbness persists, it might be good to talk with a health care provider to ensure there’s no damage.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS): Often experienced by people who work in occupations which require them to put a lot of pressure on their wrists (such as construction workers and mechanics), CTS causes numbness in the arms, wrists, or hands. The carpal tunnel runs on the underside of the wrist, protecting nerves running the length of the arm. If too much force is put on it, it can become constricted, thereby also putting pressure on the nerve. At its worst, CTS may require surgery, but many people find that taking frequent breaks from work (whether on the computer or with a jackhammer), stretching, and keeping hands and wrists warm helps reduce discomfort.
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS): This syndrome refers to a group of disorders that are caused by blood vessels or nerves that are compressed between the collarbone and first rib. The most common type is neurological TOS (NTOS), which originates from compression of the brachial plexus, or the network of nerves that comes from your spinal cord to control muscle movements and sensation in the affected area. Another form is vascular TOS, which is caused by compression of one or more veins or arteries under the collarbone. Usually, treatment for any kind of TOS involves physical therapy or in some cases, surgery.
  • Medication side effects: Certain anticonvulsant and antiepileptic medications, as well as a medication used to treat glaucoma, have side effects that include paresthesia. To determine if any of your medications are causing this side effect, it’s best to speak with a medical professional.

If the numbness you're experiencing continues and interferes with your daily activities, consider talking with your health care provider (sooner rather than later) about other effective, long-term solutions. As you prepare for this visit, it might be good to think about the following questions: Which three fingers are affected? How often does it happen — daily or weekly? Are there any activities that seem to be associated with the problem? Answering these questions, as well as the questions that reflect any changes you've recently made in your life, and then discussing with your provider will hopefully help you put a (tingling) finger on the problem.

Here’s to skipping the snooze button on sleepy fingers!

Alice!

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