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There are a number of health conditions that can cause numbness, tingling, burning, electrical sensations, and paralysis of the arms, hands, and fingers. Only a doctor can diagnose you, but there are subtle symptoms that can give you an idea of which problem is causing your symptoms.

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome is most common in people who use their hands in repetitive motion, such as pianists, guitarists, carpenters, tailors, typists, stonemasons, bricklayers, and so on. It's also unusually common in the UK and almost unknown in South America and Africa. Pain is usually intermittent, not continuous, and it is common at night, especially in people who relieve symptoms by shaking out their wrists. If the symptoms involve more than fingers, then it probably isn't carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Coagulation disorders and Raynaud's disease, which affect circulation in the limbs, can cause numbness, tingling, and sensitivity to cold.
  • Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of poorly controlled diabetes. The underlying problem in diabetic neuropathy is the inability of nerves to provide nutrition all the way up and down the neuron. Because the nerves that go to your feet are longer than the nerves that go to your hands, you will usually get symptoms in your feet before you get symptoms in your hands. If you control your blood sugars well, symptoms usually improve in just a few days.
  • Nerve entrapment caused by injury results symptoms including loss of sensation, tingling, burning, and paralysis. This is not a problem that can be corrected without surgery.
  • Osteoarthritis is a condition caused by wear and tear on the joints. At first, it responds to over the counter pain relievers. Unfortunately, pain relievers like Aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, and Ibuprofen interfere with the formation of cartilage and the joints become more "wobbly" as time goes on. There is a point at which these pain relievers don't work. Morning pain and stiffness are usually more of a problem than pain and stiffness during sleep. As soon as you get up and moving, however, the joints release their synovial fluid, which lubricates them, and pain and stiffness subside.
  • Taking too much vitamin B6 can cause many of the same symptoms as carpal tunnel syndrome and diabetic neuropathy. The differential diagnosis is simple: Stop taking vitamin B6, and see if symptoms improve.
  • Not getting enough vitamin B12 also can cause many of the same symptoms as carpal tunnel syndrome and diabetic neuropathy. The problem tends to show up after the age of 60, when the stomach lining may stop making intrinsic factor, which makes it possible for the body to absorb vitamin B12 from digested food. A single injection of B12 followed by regular use of B12 supplements usually corrects this problem.

Some of these problems are very easy to deal with medically. Stop taking B6, start taking B12. Some of them are notoriously difficult to manage, such as diabetes. If you have a medical problem, you need medical treatment. But what if you have symptoms your doctor can't diagnose and you just want relief?

  • Various forms of trigger point therapy can be helpful. There's more than one way to do trigger point therapy. You can use warm, moist heat (a water bottle, for example) at home. You can see an acupuncturist for either acupuncture or dry needling (which is something like a therapeutic tattoo, only without the ink). You can get massage at your trigger points, and maybe train a partner to perform it at home.
  • Transcutaneous electroneural stimulation (TENS) reliably relieves muscle pain. It's no longer something only available by prescription, and at-home units sell for as little as $32.
  • Ultrasound massage units, which may cost about $200, provide many of the benefits of moist heat without the potential for damage to the skin.

There's usually something you can do about muscle pain. It may take a little experimentation, but between at-home treatment methods and medical intervention, getting well is possible.

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