4 medical causes of hand cramps, from dehydration to focal hand dystonia, and tips to get relief
- You might get hand cramps after writing, typing, or holding your phone for long periods of time.
- Dehydration, diabetes, carpal tunnel syndrome, and focal dystonia can also cause hand cramps.
Hand cramps usually happen as a temporary side effect of using your hands too much — after scrawling pages of notes during a grueling organic chemistry class, for instance, or hours of frantic typing to get a quarterly report finished in time.
"It's all too easy to over-stress muscles in the hands from typing, writing, or working on your cell phone. Injuries and overuse can send inflammatory chemicals throughout the hands, contributing to cramps," says Dr. Jacob Hascalovici, the Co-Founder & Chief Medical Officer of Clearing.
But persistent hand cramps that don't have a clear cause can become more than a passing annoyance. They may cause lingering pain and discomfort and eventually begin to affect your day-to-day life.
Read on to learn four medical causes of hand cramps, plus a few steps you can take to get relief.
Note: Dehydration happens when your body doesn't have enough water to function as it typically would — such as when you don't drink enough water, lose excessive fluid through exercise, or experience persistent vomiting and diarrhea during illness.
You might experience hand cramps when dehydrated because your muscles lose the proper balance of water and electrolytes.
Electrolytes like calcium, sodium, and potassium help regulate many cell functions, including how your muscles contract and relax, so losing electrolytes due to dehydration can cause cramps in your hands and arms, legs and feet, and your abdomen.
In addition to cramps in the hands and elsewhere, dehydration can cause:
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Dark urine or a decrease in the volume of your urine
What to do next: You can prevent dehydration and reduce your hand cramps by drinking enough water and taking in plenty of electrolytes — via liquids like coconut water, sports drinks, or Pedialyte — throughout the day.
Note: Experts recommend consuming between 11.5 cups to 15.5 cups of water each day. This recommendation includes the water you get from the food you eat — generally, about 20% of your daily fluids come from food, and the remaining 80% comes from water.
You'll know you're getting enough water throughout the day if you rarely feel thirsty and your urine is pale yellow to clear in color — and if your hand cramps improve.
Specific causes of hand cramps associated with diabetes include:
If you have uncontrolled diabetes, you'll also experience other symptoms, such as:
- Strong thirst and hunger
- Frequent urination
- Fatigue, weakness, and irritability or other mood changes
- Blurry vision
Over time, diabetes can lead to a condition called diabetic cheiroarthropathy, which can cause hand cramps along with thickening skin on your hands. This condition, also known as stiff hand syndrome, occurs in about 30%-40% of people with diabetes.
Other symptoms of stiff hand syndrome include:
- Difficulty fully extending or flexing your fingers
- Decreased grip strength
- Loss of fine motor control
- Difficulty completing everyday activities
Note: The "prayer sign" is a distinctive diagnostic test for diabetic stiff hand syndrome: When you put your palms together in front of you, your fingers won't fully touch each other because they can't fully straighten.
- Exercising regularly: Aim to get regular exercise, if you're able. The current recommendation for adults is 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of intense aerobic exercise, plus two sessions of total-body strength training per week.
- Eat a balanced diet: Aim to include a variety of food in your diet like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
3. Carpal tunnel syndrome
Inflammation and swelling of the tendons in your wrist can compress the median nerve where your wrist meets your hand. This inflammation can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.
Other symptoms, which often intensify at night, can include:
- Numbness and tingling in your hand, thumb, and the first three fingers
- Pain in your hand, wrist, and elbow
- Weakness in your hand
- Decreased coordination during hand movements
Risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome include:
- Heredity: A narrow carpal tunnel, which may run in families, can increase your chances of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Repetitive hand use: Doing repetitive motions like typing, writing, or using tools can make the tendons in your wrist swell and pinch the median nerve.
- Pregnancy: Hormonal changes during pregnancy can cause swelling and pressure on your median nerve.
What to do next: If you have signs of carpal tunnel syndrome, check in with your healthcare team. They can diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome and recommend the right treatment, which may include:
- Steroid injections: Corticosteroids like prednisone can help reduce swelling in the tendons of your wrist, which may reduce compression of your median nerve.
- A wrist splint: Wearing a wrist splint at night to keep your wrist immobilized may help relieve mild to moderate carpal tunnel symptoms in just a few weeks.
- Surgery: Carpal tunnel release is a brief outpatient surgical procedure that involves cutting a fibrous band on the flexor retinaculum, or inside of the wrist, to release pressure on the median nerve.
4. Focal hand dystonia
Focal hand dystonia is a neurological disorder that causes spasms and cramping of your hand.
Experts believe this condition happens due to a dysfunction of the nerves that send signals between your brain and your muscles.
Initially, focal hand dystonia affects your coordination. As time goes on, you may also develop:
- A stuck position of your hand
- Muscle pain
Note: Focal dystonia occurs most commonly in people between the ages of 40 and 60, and women develop it about three times as often. Your genes might also play a part, as about 10% of people with focal dystonia have a family history of the condition.
While focal hand dystonia can cause your hand to cramp or move involuntarily throughout the day, you're more likely to experience something called task specific focal dystonia — cramping when performing activities that require fine motor control.
Types of task specific dystonias that can affect the hand include:
- Musician's dystonia: This type of dystonia can cause your hands to involuntarily curl, cramp, or tremble while playing instruments like the piano or guitar.
- Writer's cramp: Initially, writer's cramp causes your hand to tightly grip a pen when writing. Eventually, spasms and cramping in your hand can make your writing nearly illegible.
- The "yips:" Athletes, particularly golfers or tennis players, may experience a type of task-specific dystonia known as "the yips," which involves involuntary jerking of the wrists, along with hand and arm cramps, Hascalovici says.
You may also experience task specific dystonia during other activities that require repetitive motion and fine motor control — for example, if you work as a hairstylist or shoemaker, or frequently type or use a computer mouse.
What to do next: Focal hand dystonia has no cure, but the right treatment can reduce spasms and cramping and help keep your symptoms from getting worse.
Treatments may include:
- Medications: A doctor may prescribe medications to treat muscle spasms and cramping, including anticholinergics like trihexyphenidyl, muscle relaxants like baclofen, benzodiazepines like clonazepam, and dopamine agonists like carbidopa and levodopa.
- Botox: An injection of Botox into your muscles can block nerve signals that cause spasms and hand cramps. About half of people will get relief from symptoms for an average of six months.
- Sensorimotor retraining: Sometimes, slightly changing how you normally do an activity — called sensorimotor retraining — can help with task specific dystonia. "For example, someone with writer's dystonia could try a different grip of their pen to see if symptoms improve," Hascalovici says. Other examples include using thicker pens or wearing gloves while playing violin.
- Surgery: Your doctor may recommend a procedure called deep brain stimulation (DBS) if no other treatments make a difference. In DBS, surgeons implant electrodes into your brain to help regulate the areas of your brain that cause focal hand dystonia symptoms.
You might get hand cramps from time to time, especially if you're doing a lot of fine movements in work or recreational activities. Usually, taking a break or changing your activities can provide some relief.
However, if you're experiencing persistent hand cramps with no obvious cause, you might consider checking in with your doctor. They can evaluate you for any underlying medical cause and offer next steps to help relieve any pain or discomfort.
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