Getting the Right Diagnosis for Numb Fingers

Before starting treatment for pain and/or numbness in your hands, be careful to make sure you have the correct diagnosis. It is not uncommon for cervical radiculopathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis to be mistaken for each other because the symptoms can be so similar.

See What Causes Hand Pain and Numbness?

Cervical Herniated Disc VideoA herniated cervical disc may cause arm and hand pain. Watch: Cervical Herniated Disc Video

A common misdiagnosis

There are several conditions that can cause numb fingers, and getting an accurate diagnosis is essential to guide treatments decisions. Common conditions that can lead to finger numbness include:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
    Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve that enters your hand through a tunnel made by the wrist bones, is compromised, usually resulting in numbness in the thumb, index, and middle finger. Sometimes the numbness is worse at night. If you have severe carpal tunnel syndrome, you may also experience weakness in the thumb muscles of your hand. All of these symptoms can mimic cervical radiculopathy.

  • See Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Cervical Spinal Stenosis VideoTightening of your spinal canal could lead to nerve irritation.
Watch:
Cervical Radiculopathy Interactive Video
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Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview VideoWatch the Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview Video at Arthritis-health.com.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
    Rheumatoid arthritis is characterized by painful, swollen joints in symmetrical areas of your body (meaning if one hand hurts, your other one most likely will too). The most common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are joints that are tender, swollen, red, and warm to the touch. Other symptoms may include numbness, tingling, and/or burning in your hands or feet. Rheumatoid arthritis can actually cause carpal tunnel syndrome if the tendons in the wrists are inflamed.

Getting an accurate diagnosis

Your physician should start out with a basic medical history and exam. A nerve conduction study can confirm or rule out carpal tunnel syndrome. If the doctor suspects the numbness may be caused by cervical radiculopathy, imaging studies like MRIs can be helpful. Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis can be a bit trickier. An accurate diagnosis will require blood tests and imaging exams along with a full medical history.

See Indications and Contraindications for an MRI Scan

I am writing this blog because I feel many people are being given a wrong diagnosis. A member of my own family even had surgery to treat a supposed case of carpal tunnel syndrome, when in fact this person had a cervical herniated disc.

See Diagnosing Cervical Radiculopathy vs. Other Causes of Hand Pain

If you experience any hand or finger numbness along with confusion, difficulty breathing, slurred speech, or any alarming symptoms, please seek emergency medical care.

As a general rule, my counsel is to spend the time you need to make sure you get an accurate diagnosis—and seek a second (or third) opinion if you have any doubts or unanswered questions. A variety of conditions can cause numb fingers, and an correct diagnosis is needed in order for the treatment to work.

Learn more:

Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment Options

Cervical Spondylosis with Myelopathy

Dr. Steven Shoshany, DC, CCEP, New York, NY, 10012