Understanding Arthritis-Related Numbness

While arthritis typically causes pain and stiffness, some sufferers experience numbness in affected areas as well. What causes this numbness, and how can it be alleviated?

Typically, if you are experiencing numbness anywhere, it's due to a pinched nerve. Sometimes your arthritic joint can swell and press against a nerve. You may experience numbness in the joint itself, or the numbness may manifest itself elsewhere in the body. For example, a pinched nerve in the neck may translate to a loss of feeling in the arm.

Numbness may occur when you have a secondary condition that arises from your arthritis. Spinal stenosis is one example. With this condition, a narrowing of one or more parts of the spine translates into pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. This can cause pain and numbness in the back. Arthritis may be one factor contributing to spinal stenosis, along with tumors, injuries, inherited conditions such a small spinal canal, and the simple wear and tear of aging.

Carpal-tunnel syndrome is another example of a condition sometimes arising from arthritis that may lead to numbness. In carpal-tunnel syndrome, the median nerve responsible for sensations in the thumb becomes compressed inside the "tunnel" of carpal bones and ligaments in your wrist. Arthritis is a fairly common cause of this condition, because a person who has suffered from arthritis for some time can develop spurs on the carpal bones, which in turn compress the median nerve.

Treating the arthritis may help reduce the numbness. Typical therapies include alternating heat and cold packs, over-the-counter painkillers, and physical-therapy exercises. If you succeed in reducing the swelling in your affected joint, the joint may exert less pressure on the nerve. Because constant nerve compression and irritation can eventually lead to weakness in the affected area, it's important to mention your numbness to your doctor, especially if it doesn't go away on its own.



University of Washington Department of Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, www.orthop.washington.edu

National Institutes of Health, www.niams.nih.gov

Arthritis Foundation, www.arthritistoday.org