Wrist Drop

The radial nerve is one of the nerves that carry signals from the brain down the arm to the hand. It controls movement of the triceps muscle at the back of the upper arm and backward bending of the wrist. It also helps in movement and feeling in the hand. Wrist drop is commonly caused by compression of the radial nerve. Sometimes nerve injury in the cervical spine (radiculopathy) or in the brachial plexus can also cause a wrist drop. Symptoms of wrist drop include:

  • Weakness of the wrist and fingers

  • Inability to straighten the wrist or fingers

  • Numbness or tingling of the hand

  • Pain in the wrist or hand

  • Muscle shrinking in the forearm or wrist

Compression of the radial nerve is often caused by:

  • Unrelieved pressure on the radial nerve (from things such as sleeping with the arm draped over something such as the back of a chair)

  • Using crutches incorrectly, causing too much pressure on the nerve

The problem will likely go away on its own once pressure to the nerve is relieved. If the nerve has been damaged, symptoms may be longer term. In this case, splinting the wrist to provide support for your wrist and fingers can help improve function. Physical therapy may be prescribed. Surgery to repair the nerve may be needed for symptoms that don't respond to simpler treatments. In some cases, your healthcare provider will do tests such as electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies (NCS) to find the extent of damage done to the radial nerve. This will help your provider figure out how long it may take you to get better.

Home care

  • Exercise under the direction of your physical therapist or healthcare provider.

  • If you were given a splint or sling, wear it as directed.

  • If medicines were prescribed for pain or nerve sensations, take them as directed.

  • Don't get into positions that may stretch or put pressure on the underarm. 

  • If repetitive motion is the cause, avoid the activity that caused the problem.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised.

When to get medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these:

  • Increasing arm swelling or pain

  • Numbness or weakness of the arm

  • Symptoms spread to other parts of the body

  • Slurred speech, confusion

  • Trouble speaking, walking, or seeing

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing

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