The radial nerve is located in the arm. It arises from the C5 to C8 vertebrae of the spinal column and provides motor function and sensation to the extensors of the forearm, wrist, fingers and thumb. Most frequently the entrapment occurs in the proximal forearm and patients with this may experience any combination of pain, numbness, weakness and overall dysfunction. Radial nerve injuries mainly occur due to overuse although they can be a result of physical trauma, infection or even exposure to toxins.
Radial nerve symptoms typically affect the back of your hand near the thumb and in you index and middle fingers.
Symptoms may include:
- Unusual sensation in your thumb and fingers
- A sharp/burning pain
- Difficulty in straightening the arm
- Inability to extend or flex the wrist and fingers (this is known as wrist/ finger drop, this is rare in most cases).
Causes of radial nerve entrapment
The most common cause of radial nerve injury is a break of the arm, overusing the arm and sports or work accidents.
Here are some possible causes for radial nerve injury:
- Using crutches improperly
- Falling on or receiving direct impact to the arm
- Long term constriction of your wrist
- Sleeping with your arm in an unnatural position
- Fracture of the humerus
Movements that involve grasping and swinging and rotating the forearm can lead to radial nerve damage over time. This is only when the movements are repeated often enough. As the nerve moves back and forth over various adjacent structures there is potential that it may become irritated or trapped between surrounding tissues and muscle groups.
In addition to this there are some health conditions that affect the body as a whole and can specifically target certain nerve groups. Diabetes and kidney disease can cause inflammation and other symptoms which can lead to nerve compression.
Treatment and management
Most radial nerve injuries will heal within a 12-week period dependent on the severity of the injury. To help to prevent further damage there are some preventative steps that can be taken. You should try to avoid prolonged pressure on the upper arm as well as avoiding repetitive movements or staying in one position for too long. If you work in an occupation or sport that requires you to complete repetitive motions, try to take some steps in protecting yourself, you can do this by taking breaks in between activities and switch between tasks that use different movements.
Further treatment options include:
- Braces or splints
- Physical therapy to help build muscle and maintain strength
- Analgesic /anti-inflammatory medication
- Steroid injections
- Prescription pain killers
- Anesthetic creams or patches
Some patient like the use transcutaneous nerve stimulation otherwise known as TENS to address the nerve damage. This therapy uses electric current at varying speeds by placing sticky electrode pads over the affected area. Physiotherapy is one of the most common forms of treatment for low grade nerve injuries. The build up of muscle and maintenance of strength can aid with the healing process and function of the nerves. Massage therapy is also commonly used to break up scar tissue and make the redial nerve more responsive.
If your symptoms persist for more that 5-7 days or there is a worsening of the symptoms and little improvement you should seek medical advice as soon as possible.