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.
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 syndromeCarpal 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.
Cervical radiculopathyCervical radiculopathy (commonly known as a “pinched nerve”) occurs when a nerve exiting your neck is irritated by compression or inflammation. Conditions that commonly cause these cervical radiculopathy include a cervical herniated disc, cervical spinal stenosis, or cervical degenerative disc disease.
If the damaged nerve serves the hand, you may experience numbness in the same areas as they would with carpal tunnel syndrome.
Rheumatoid arthritisRheumatoid 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.
Watch: Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview Video at Arthritis-health.com
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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 What Causes Hand Pain and Numbness?
If you experience any hand or finger numbness along with confusion, difficulty breathing, slurred speech, or any alarming symptoms, please seek emergency medical care.
See Cervical Radiculopathy Treatment
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.
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Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment Options