Wrist Drop

The radial nerve is one of three 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 caused by compression of the radial nerve. 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 wrist or hand

Compression of the radial nerve is often caused by:

  • Unrelieved pressure on the radial nerve (from things such as sleeping with the arm trapped under the body)

  • Use of crutches resulting in too much pressure on the nerve

  • Long-term constriction of the wrist (for example, from a tight watch or bracelet)

The problem will likely go away on its 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 limit movement may help with healing. Physical therapy may be prescribed. Corticosteroids injections into the area may reduce swelling and pressure on the nerve. Surgery to repair the nerve may be needed for symptoms that do not respond to simpler treatments. In some cases, your healthcare provider will do tests such as electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies (NCS) to determine the extent of damage done to the radial nerve. This will help your healthcare provider determine how long it may take you to get better.

Home care

  • Rest the wrist until normal feeling and strength return.

  • 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.

  • Avoid 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 seek medical advice

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

  • 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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