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What Is Wrist Drop?

By B. Koch
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Wrist drop, which is also called radial neuropathy or Saturday night palsy, is caused by damage to the radial nerve of the arm. Its symptoms include weakness and numbness, which may take days to months to heal. Wrist drop is often the result of sitting with the arm in an unusual position for an extended period of time.

Inability to extend the hand or raise the hand using the wrist are also symptoms of this condition. The hand or wrist may be weak, and the fingers may also be affected. Widespread numbness throughout the wrist, hand, and fingers is also not uncommon. Other symptoms include wrist pain, tenderness, and swelling.

Radial neuropathy is the result of injury to the radial nerve. This nerve is attached to the spinal cord and spirals around the arm, controlling skin sensation and the muscles in the arm, wrist, and hand. The condition occurs when the radial nerve becomes compressed or damaged.

Compression of the radial nerve most often occurs after sitting in an awkward position, such as having the arm draped over the back of a hard chair for an extended period of time. It most often occurs to people who have been drinking or who have taken drugs and then fallen asleep in this awkward position. Most sober people would wake up from this painful position before damage occurred. This condition is also known as Saturday night palsy, as it often occurs after a night of partying.

Generally, wrist drop will cure itself over time. Depending on the extent of the damage, this may be anywhere from several days to several months or longer than a year. Healing time depends entirely on whether or not the radial nerve was damaged and can heal itself or if parts of the nerve were so severely damaged that it must re-grow. Typically, a doctor will have patients wear a splint and participate in physical therapy. In rare instances, surgery may be required to repair the problem.

There are a number of exercises that are recommended to patients suffering from wrist drop. The wrist can be stretched by holding the arm straight out away from the body as the opposite hand gently flexes the wrist towards the floor, then towards the ceiling. Finger stretches may also help. With a rubber band wrapped around all five fingers, the fingers can be stretched out as far as possible. These exercises can be preformed by individuals with minor wrist drop, as no movement of the wrist or fingers is possible in more severe cases.

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Discussion Comments
By quickfix — On Nov 11, 2014

I now have drop-hand of the left arm, and I got it in a very foolish way. Simply put, I had passed out one night and my arm was in an unusual position, when I awoke the next morning I found I had this condition. I am a disabled person, and take pain pills, and although I should not drink, I foolishly was drinking brandy to help with sleeping. This is very painful and difficult to deal with. it has been four weeks and I've only recovered about 30 percent so far. It seems it will take a long time to heal completely. And yes, I still drink brandy!

By turquoise — On Aug 04, 2013

In France, they call this condition "a lover's arm." It can happen if your significant other sleeps on your arm overnight. The weight and pressure basically compresses the radial nerve and causes damage.

By SteamLouis — On Aug 04, 2013

@literally45-- If it healed in a week, you must have had a very minor case of wrist drop.

I have a very serious case radial nerve palsy. It has been two months and there is still no improvement of my symptoms. I injured my radial nerve in an accident. I had to have surgery on my arm and my radial nerve has been non-functional ever since. My doctors say that it might take up to six months for it to heal.

By literally45 — On Aug 04, 2013

I think I had wrist drop happen to me once. I never saw a doctor for it, so I'm not sure if it was a radial nerve injury. But I had all of these symptoms. My arm was weak and I could not use it at all for a weak. It was painful and sore and lifting it was impossible.

I think mine was due to swimming too much in addition to sleeping on my arm. But it healed on its own after about ten days. I did not use my arm much during that time and I made sure to never sleep on it or apply pressure.

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