Pinched Nerve in the Arm: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Discover the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for a pinched nerve in the arm. Learn exercises and physical therapy techniques to ease discomfort.

Published Date: Apr 17, 2024
woman-with-pinched-never

Pinched Nerve in the Arm: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Discover the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for a pinched nerve in the arm. Learn exercises and physical therapy techniques to ease discomfort.

Published Date: Apr 17, 2024
woman-with-pinched-never

Pinched Nerve in the Arm: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Discover the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for a pinched nerve in the arm. Learn exercises and physical therapy techniques to ease discomfort.

Published Date: Apr 17, 2024
woman-with-pinched-never

Pinched Nerve in the Arm: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Discover the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for a pinched nerve in the arm. Learn exercises and physical therapy techniques to ease discomfort.

Published Date: Apr 17, 2024
woman-with-pinched-never
Table of Contents

If your hand or arm has ever “fallen asleep,” you probably know how uncomfortable the numbness and tingling can be. But if you have ongoing tingling, numbness, or sharp pain in your arm, wrist, or hands, you might be dealing with a pinched nerve. “A ‘pinched’ nerve really just means that the nerve is irritated, sometimes as a result of being compressed,” says Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “It’s like a kink in a hose: If you try to pull a hose but there’s a kink in it, it will stretch more in some places and won’t unroll smoothly and evenly. When this happens in a nerve, you can get a tingling, burning, achy, or cramping sensation.”

Read on to learn about what might cause a pinched nerve in the arm and how to feel better with help from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

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Our Hinge Health Experts

Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Vinci is a Hinge Health physical therapist with a special interest in orthopedics, persistent pain, and mindfulness based stress reduction.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Does ‘Pinched Nerve in Arm’ Mean? 

There are several nerves in your arm, and if any become pinched or compressed you may end up with a specific “syndrome,” Dr. Vinci explains. The most common are carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, and radial tunnel syndrome.

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve in your wrist gets pinched or compressed as it runs through the narrow channel in your wrist (known as the carpal tunnel).

  • Cubital tunnel syndrome is a pinching or irritation of the ulnar nerve. Cubital tunnel syndrome stems from pressure on the ulnar nerve as it runs through a channel called the cubital tunnel, which goes behind and inside the elbow.

  • Radial tunnel syndrome occurs when the radial nerve gets pinched, and it happens as it runs through the radial tunnel located on the top/outside of the elbow and forearm.

These conditions are relatively common (especially carpal tunnel syndrome), and they may cause nagging symptoms that wax and wane over time, says Dr. Vinci. But conservative treatments, including activity modification and physical therapy, can help a lot.

Pinched Nerve Symptoms

A pinched nerve in the arm often causes one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Numbness

  • Tingling or a pins-and-needles sensation

  • Sharp pain

  • Burning pain

  • Achy pain

  • Itchy/crawling sensation

  • Pain that radiates (spreads) rather than staying confined to one spot

If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, you’ll most likely feel symptoms in your thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers, says Dr. Vinci. You might also have muscle weakness in your hand.

With cubital tunnel syndrome, symptoms tend to present at the elbow or down the side of the arm (toward the pinky side of the hand), says Dr. Vinci. They’re usually most bothersome when you’ve been leaning on your elbows for a long time (like on a tabletop) or after you’ve been sleeping with your arm bent under your head. “Bending your elbows can put a lot of pressure on the path of the nerve,” she says.

With radial tunnel syndrome, symptoms are most noticeable in the forearm or on the outside of your elbow (not palm side). 

Causes and Risk Factors of Pinched Nerve in Arm 

A nerve can be pinched or irritated by a bone, muscle, or tendon, or as a result of swelling in the tunnel it has to travel through, says Dr. Vinci. You might be more prone to carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, or radial tunnel syndrome if you:

  • Have inflammatory arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis. The inflammation in joints can also irritate nearby nerves.

  • Engage in repetitive motions, like frequent typing or working with power tools. These habits are often associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, says Dr. Vinci.

  • Have diabetes, which can contribute to nerve damage in some cases.  

  • Have an accident or injury to your arm. Fracturing your elbow, for example, may contribute to cubital tunnel syndrome or radial tunnel syndrome, says Dr. Vinci.

How to Treat a Pinched Nerve in Arm 

Conservative treatments should be used for a pinched nerve in your arm. Although surgical interventions are somewhat common, they ought to be a last resort, says Dr. Vinci. That’s because conservative treatments can also be effective and carry far lower risk. Here are some options. 

  • Splinting or bracing. At Hinge Health, we always say that movement is medicine. And while targeted exercises are important for healing, immobilizing your arm in a way that reduces pressure on the problematic nerve can relieve symptoms while giving the underlying inflammation time to go down. “For carpal tunnel or radial tunnel syndrome, we’d recommend wearing a wrist splint or brace, especially at night,” says Dr. Vinci. For cubital tunnel syndrome, an elbow splint may be helpful. A physical therapist can help you decide whether a brace would be helpful, and what kind.  

  • Anti-inflammatory medication. NSAID pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) can be helpful for pinched nerve symptoms. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.

  • Activity modification. The goal isn’t to stop moving, but rather to make tweaks to movements and positions that might be aggravating your condition. If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, for instance, it may help to examine your office work station to see if you can position your desk, keyboard, or mouse in a way that takes some pressure off your wrists.

  • Physical therapy. Physical therapy is a research-backed treatment for a pinched nerve in the arm. In physical therapy, you’ll learn specific moves designed to take pressure off the affected nerve, in part by strengthening and stretching the surrounding muscles, says Dr. Vinci. Nerve “flossing,” or gently stretching irritated nerves in a back and forth motion, is also very helpful, she adds.

Exercises for Pinched Nerve in Arm

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Median Nerve Glide
  • Hand Tendon Glide
  • Ulnar Nerve Glide
  • Radial Nerve Glide

The above physical therapist-recommend exercises help with symptoms of a pinched nerve in the arm. “The goal of nerve glides, or nerve flossing, is to put the body into a position where you’re addressing that ‘kink in the hose’ where the nerve is compressed,” says Dr. Vinci. “You want to try to pull the ‘hose’ straight, give it some slack, hold it for one or two seconds, and then repeat. The goal is to get the nerve to slide and glide better on its path.”

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Treat Symptoms as a Wake Up Call

“Pinched nerve syndromes can be a bit persnickety, and symptoms tend to come and go, getting better and worse periodically,” says Dr. Vinci. “When symptoms come back, take a moment to think about how to modify your activities and get more movement so you’re not stuck in the same position for a prolonged period. Having more variation in position throughout the day helps.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

  1. Pidgeon, T. S., Faust, K., & Jennings, C. D. (2022, March). Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. OrthoInfo — American Academy of Othopaedic Surgeons. Retrieved from https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/carpal-tunnel-syndrome/#:~:text=Symptoms%20of%20carpal%20tunnel%20syndrome,index%2C%20middle%2C%20and%20ring%20fingers

  2. Ulnar Neuritis & Ulnar Nerve Pain. (n.d.). Florida Orthopaedic Institute. Retrieved from https://www.floridaortho.com/specialties/hand-and-wrist/ulnar-neuritis/

  3. Cubital Tunnel Syndrome. (2021, October 25). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from  https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21997-cubital-tunnel-syndrome

  4. Radial Tunnel Syndrome. (2021, September 7). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from  https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15658-radial-tunnel-syndrome

  5. Radial Tunnel Syndrome. (n.d.). Hand Care: The Upper Extremity Expert. Retrieved from  https://www.assh.org/handcare/condition/radial-tunnel-syndrome#:~:text=The%20area%20where%20the%20muscles,or%20tightness%20in%20the%20tunnel.

  6. Pinched Nerve. (2020, April 7). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/6481-pinched-nerves#symptoms-and-causes

  7. Maugeri, G., D’Agata, V., Trovato, B., Roggio, F., Castorina, A., Vecchio, M., Di Rosa, M., & Musumeci, G. (2021). The role of exercise on peripheral nerve regeneration: from animal model to clinical application. Heliyon, 7(11), e08281. doi:10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e08281