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Numbness is often caused by benign etiology but sometimes it could be an alarming symptom for a serious condition such as stroke. I will try to help you understand how to differentiate between benign and serious causes of numbness. The following stories are based on real events.

First story:

A few months ago I was studying for a medical exam; I spent the night at the library reading thick books with my elbows against the table. I liked this position because it is the most comfortable position for me to concentrate. Next day morning I woke up with numbness and pinching sensation in my pinky and ring fingers. This is a benign condition called Ulnar Nerve Entrapment. The ulnar nerve is the nerve that is responsible for the sensory supply of the pinky and ring fingers. The ulnar nerve passes the elbow very close to the bone so when you put your elbow on the table the ulnar nerve is pressed against the bone when the pressure on the nerve lasts for a long time (as in this story) you will develop this tingling sensation in the area innervated by this nerve. This can be observed or some doctors use a splint to keep the elbow in optimal position until the nerve heals itself.

How to relieve this kind of numbness:

  • Try to give your arm some rest. Don't bend your elbow for long time and do not put your elbows on the table or rest them on the armrest. No pressure should be applied to the elbow area.
  • Try not to bent your arm when you sleep, keep it straight. You can wrap a towel around your elbow to keep it from bending while you are asleep.

If the numbness is severe enough to interfere with your daily life or if it persists for a long time, it is highly recommended that you visit your general practitioner.

Second story:

One of my patients during her pregnancy consulted me because she had tingling sensation in her thumb, index and middle fingers. This numbness is also localized to a particular area (3 fingers) and these 3 fingers are innervated by the median nerve. The median nerve becomes entrapped within the wrist especially in pregnant women. If this numbness becomes severe enough to interfere with daily life, there are several treatment options. Easy cases are treated with a splint. More persistent cases can be treated with a steroid injection in the wrist. Severe cases can be managed surgically.

Third story:

One of my patients called me on the phone and told me he had numbness and tingling in his right arm, the numbness was not localized to one area and had a vague distribution. His symptoms started suddenly a few hours ago when he was watching TV. He also said he felt a mild weakness in his right leg. My response was "Call 911 immediately". This is most likely a stroke. Stroke is treatable emergency if the patient gets to the hospital within 3 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Many other conditions can cause numbness such as vitamin B12 deficiency, seizures, migraines and shingles.

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