nerve damage after hand injury: learn the signs
Hands are the most common site of a nerve injury. From everyday hazards like slicing into your hand with a kitchen knife, to more traumatic accidents like a run-in with a power tool or even a surgical injury, a hand injury can lead to chronic pain, numbness and more.
If you previously went to the ER for a hand injury, you may have a nerve injury without knowing it. As many as 91% of nerve injuries are missed in the ER, and these injuries may lead to chronic pain even after the original wound has healed.
which nerves are part of the hand?
There are three main nerves in the hand. All three branch out from the brachial plexus, the network of nerves that connects your spine to your shoulders, arms and hands. These nerves allow you to both move and touch with your hands.
- Median nerve: The nerve that runs from the shoulder down the front of the forearm to the hands.
- Ulnar nerve: The nerve that begins at the armpit and runs to the hand, responsible for controlling the small muscles of the hand.
- Radial nerve: The nerve that starts at the lower armpit, passing through the channel of bone and muscle at the elbow and extending to the wrist and hand. This nerve helps control the wrists, hands and fingers.
5 common causes of nerve damage from hand injuries
- The most common cause of nerve damage involves cuts or lacerations to the nerve. This can happen while cutting into an avocado or bagel, slicing your hands on broken glass, or from broken bones, gunshot wounds or accidents involving power tools.
- A previous hand surgery may also lead to chronic pain. A surgeon may have cut or otherwise injured a nerve, causing numbness, weakness, pain (tingling or burning) or other physical changes. If your symptoms remain past the expected recovery time, you may have a surgically induced nerve injury. Read how one patient, Benjamin, found healing after an arm surgery resulted in chronic pain.
- Even a cut or wound that seems minor at first may lead to impaired hand function later. When nerves aren’t properly repaired after a surgical accident or other injury, they may form a neuroma, or a tangle of nerve tissue that can cause chronic pain.
- Another common cause of nerve damage is compression. When too much pressure is placed on the nerve, it can become inflamed. A common example is carpal tunnel syndrome, which can occur from repeated grasping motions, such as at a computer desk or bicycle handlebars. Broken or fractured bones can also cause nerve compression injuries.
- Stretching is another cause of nerve damage. This happens when the body moves suddenly in a way it doesn’t normally move, such as during a car accident or sports injury. In severe cases, injury to the brachial plexus—the network of nerves that connect your spinal cord to your shoulder, arm and hand—can lead to muscle weakness and pain in your hand.
symptoms of nerve injury to the hand
Common symptoms of a nerve injury to the hand include:
- Pain in the hand—which can be excruciating, shooting pain that may feel like an electric shock
- Tingling, numbness or altered sensation
- Weakness or loss of motor function
- Loss of sensation, including either a full or partial loss of feeling
- Sensitivity to cold or heat
- Loss or decrease in hand function/fine motor skills, such as an inability to grasp things, frequently dropping things, difficulty tying your shoe or buttoning your shirt, etc.
- Inability to move the hand or wrist
- Decreased muscle tone in the hand
what can I do about nerve damage?
An orthopedic hand surgeon or plastic reconstructive surgeon may be able to help repair peripheral nerves by reconstructing the nerve (in the case of a cut) or freeing the nerve from the pressure of the surrounding tissue (in the case of compression injuries). The good news is that studies show positive improvements in quality of life for people who undergo surgery to repair a damaged nerve.
Timing is important when it comes to nerve repair. If you’re experiencing pain and/or numbness for more than six weeks after a hand injury or other previous surgery, you may have a nerve injury. The sooner you seek treatment, the more sensory and motor function you are likely to recover.
If you’re ready to talk to a doctor about treating your chronic nerve pain, we’ve created a guide to help you locate someone.