Forearm and Thumb Numbness in Overhead Squatting

Posted: March 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

Last week, I was on round 4 of the workout “Nancy” (5 RFT couplet of 400m run and 15 overhead squats) when I noticed my left hand, specifically my thumb, felt like it was “asleep.” I figured it was a circulation issue caused by the wrist straps I was wearing. I took the straps off and finished the WOD. Surprisingly to me, I still had the “dead-arm” feeling in the top of my forearm and thumb, which continued throughout the rest of the day. Because of my background in Human Movement Science, I wanted to figure out what was going on.

I found that my symptoms were caused by the compression and impingement of nerve root C6 at which is located on the side and back of the lower portion of the neck. Root compression and impingement is usually initiated by disc herniation, but can in some circumstances be caused by sudden stretching and/or compression.

The snatch-balance movement that I was using to set up my overhead-squats, was most likely the culprit of the sudden compressive force that caused the nerve root to be compressed. However, upon further evaluation, I believe it may have had more to do with poor lift mechanics on my part.

When performing the overhead squat, the arms are elevated at the shoulder (gleno-humeral) joint, and the shoulder blades are retracted, and slightly elevated and upward rotated. This position in itself does not compress nerve root C6, but if the person performing the exercise extends (tilts head upward) and protracts (forward head position) the neck , as I was, the combination of the shoulder and neck movements puts excessive compression on the nerve root, causing radiating, pain and numbness through the top of the forearm and thumb.

After tracing my symptoms to C6, I performed some neck stretches did some myo-fascial release on my Trapezius and Levator Scapulae, the radiating pain and numbness disappeared.  After, the pain was gone, I wanted to test my hypothesis; I elevated my arms, protracted and upward rotated my shoulders. I felt nothing. I pushed my head forward and slowly looked up. As if on cue I started to feel the nervous tingling in my thumb.

While nerve root compression and impingement may cause temporary discomfort, if the incorrect movement patterns are not corrected, chronic injury and herniation may occur and cause more significant and long term problems.

  1. Nicole says:

    Thank you so much for this article. This just happened to me today and my coaches couldn’t really tell me what was going on but suspected it was possibly a pinched nerve in my shoulder. I’ll try the neck stretches to get feeling back and obviously need to work on my form. Thanks again!!

  2. richard says:

    This is exactly what happened to me this morning. Thanks for the blog great information!

  3. Serra says:

    Thank you! I had this today. Will try the suggested stretches

  4. Richard Earles says:

    This happened to me 11 days ago and now I still have slight numbness on the lateral half of my thumb and numbness on my inside forearm which is very noticeable. My bicep is also very weak and cannot life nearly as much as my other bicep. A clear innervation issue as I can’t fully contract my bicep.

    Since this has been going on for 11 days should I be worried?


    • Carlos says:

      I was also wondering the same. Has the numbness subsided for you by doing various neck and shoulder stretches?

    • Michael says:

      Considering this post is old, I’m sure the numbness subsided by now. For the sake of other curious lifters that may come across this, I wanted to share my experience. I’m one of those stubborn people and push through things rather than listen to my body. I had a WOD of OHS and HSPU’s and noticed numbness after the first round of OHS. Mind you this was my first time doing OHS and I had a good amount of weight on the bar. It got increasingly more numb and felt very awkward trying to do HSPU’s with my thumb and left side of my arm numb. Because I pushed through it rather than listening to my body, I agitated it pretty good and it lasted about 2 weeks before I was 100% again. During this time I was able to workout still and it wasn’t debilitating at all, my thumb just felt like it was partially asleep. I started do get this feeling again when dropping weight the next time doing OHS so I checked my ego and dropped down to one of the girl barbells and hardly noticed any numbness other than that from my initial set with the heavier bar. I now practice OHS at home with a lightweight standard barbell and look to up weight in the gym soon once I’m convinced my form is solid.

  5. Josh says:

    Wow! I’m so glad there are smart people there that can help me smooth out poor mechanics. Thank you very much for posting this.
    Twitter – @jericksond

  6. Marjorie says:

    Thank you for posting this. This just happened to me today and I wasn’t sure what the problem is or what to do.
    What neck stretches do you recommend? I am not sure how to do the muscle release.
    I really hope this gets better!

  7. Carlos says:

    I had the exact thing happen to me when doing the WOD nancy. I have had the numbness in my thumb and forearm yet no pain. How long does it take for the numbness to go away? I have been doing neck stretches yet the numbness remains.. If you can lend any advice i would be extremely grateful.

  8. elkgrovetoyota2 says:

    This was very helpful. I literally just came from the gym doing a WOD with included overhead squats. I am new to CrossFit, 3 weeks in. My shoulders are extremely tight and it is very difficult for me to get into the that overhead snatch position. After practicing the squat with very little weight on the bar my fingers began to tingle as well as down my left arm and forearm. Of course I googled the problem which led me to this blog post. Thanks again. I was definitley in the wrong position, head forward and up. Don’t want permament injuries so I will be watching this carefully from now on.

  9. Abe says:

    Thank you this is just what I was looking for, and happened to be the exact same workout! Now I know what to look out for (and my coaches too.)

  10. Janice says:

    Such a great article, so so helpful. Like everyone else this happened to me today. On my second day of CrossFit. I too was looking down the entire time. For some one that dances ballet to do a “snatch” is a whole different world. I need to work on my form.

  11. emmalee211 says:

    So did anyone else have it happen in both thumbs at the same time?

    • Jarod says:

      Yes! Happened to me yesterday. Hence why I found this blog. I was really concerned but now I feel more at ease that others have had the same affliction. I’ll try the stretches.

  12. nancyfrancis says:

    I thought I was going crazy this morning! Doing overhead Squats (Clean & press up – not snatching) my left hand, mostly the thumb, index and middle finger and my forearm went asleep. Took over an hour for the feeling to return to my thumb.

    I broke that elbow a few years ago, so that might have something to do with it as well, but off to Physio I go I guess 😦

  13. […] the Overhead Squats. I have been looking for info as to what causes it and how we can prevent it. This Article is the best I found and it is written by CrossFitters so we can relate. We will continue to teach it […]

  14. Brittany says:

    This happened to me this evening with the same exact WOD ” Nancy” when I was doing the over head squats I noticed my fingers going numb. So I changed from overhead squats to back squats. I’ve only been in crossfit for 3 weeks. I’m still learning. I was wondering why my arm and finger tips and thumb was still numb. What stretches do you recommend…should I be concerned?

  15. aParker says:

    Glad to find this blog. I had this symptom too after the Nancy WOD where my right thumb, index, and middle finger went numb. I went to a Chiropractor and was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Doing research, it appears the C6 nerve was impinged when I pulled my head too forward during the OH Squats where the collar bone and the neck muscles were squeezed together to impinge the C6 nerve. My poor OH squat posture as well as my lack of flexibility (I have difficulties with LB back squats because of inflexibilty issues) exacerbated it. The C6 nerve is responsible for the feeling in the top forearm and thumb so the diagnosis made perfect sense. I talked about this with my doctor friends and they came to the same conclusion too and recommended that I take NSAID (nonsteroid Anti-Inflammatory Drug) aka Ibuprofen aka Advil/Motrin 3 times a day after food for 10 days. They said that during my OH squat, I likely inflamed a ligament or muscle causing the impingement and that NSAID, rest, and healing time should be sufficient enough. They also joked around that they as doctors they could milk me for my money and order MRIs and various other tests but said the NSAID and rest should be sufficient enough. So far it is day 6 and the thumb/forearm numbness has been consistent. I booked a follow up appointment with my Chiropractor and I am on day 2 taking NSAIDs. There are a lot of material on Youtube on Thoracic Outlet Sydrome with PT material (the best ones I found I attached below).

  16. Kim says:

    I just did an OH squat WOD the other night and this happened to my left hand. I got feeling back within the hour. However, the next day, my arm was so sore (3days ago) that it hurts to lift it past my shoulder height, it even hurts to use it while driving. I can feel the pull coming from my back. I am hoping this is all part of the process and that I will have full use of my arm soon?!?!? Does this sound normal? Thanks.

  17. LaShanna says:

    this happened to me last night. without your article I might be spending money on my deductible. Thanks!

  18. Anthony says:

    aParker, have you recovered yet? I will be on my 11th day tomorrow..

  19. Todd says:

    I had this same issue happen to me last evening doing 3-3-3-3-3 of OVHS. But in my case, my entire arm from shoulder, to bicep, to forearm, to thumb are numb…it is very worrisome. I didnt see any specific neck stretches that were previously mentioned…does anyone have an idea which stretches are being discussed to relieve the numbess? An help would be greatly appreciated

  20. Morgan says:

    I had a patient come in today with this same problem. Just a heads up to you guys. In his case all signs pointed to a traction injury of the brachial plexus, more like a stinger that you see in football. When that is the case, stretching the neck can make the problem a little worse. Just make sure that you have actual TOS and not a brachial plexus traction injury before going wild with the stretching.

  21. Marisa says:

    Thanks for posting! Did Nancy on Sat and still have numbness. It’s slowly subsiding but I will definitely try the stretches.

  22. Megan G says:

    I am amazed at how common this injury is! This happened to me two days ago. I just started Crossfit and was at my 8th class. The instructor had me test the 45# barbell for the Nancy WOD and I was obviously not ready for that kind of weight so my form went out the door! I should have never tried this weight to begin with and my coach should have known my fitness level to keep me at the lower weight. I went to see a doctor who specializes in soft tissue manipulation called Airossti. I still have the numbness in my arm and thumb and will show him this article tomorrow at my appointment. I think Crossfit coaches need to be aware of this common injury and watch their athletes to ensure they do not get hurt.

  23. jofjltncb6 says:

    Another victim of Nancy here. Probably not a good first “real” crossfit workout ever for me. Chiro didn’t seem worried at all. Hoping/expecting to be better in a few days.

  24. Fogdood says:

    I am amazed at how many people have this happen. I was in round three of “Nancy” this morning and my left thumb and two fingers went numb. Now it is in my forearm as well. No pain but definitely irritating to have pins and needles for so long. I am going to do some stretches and stop back by my box for some coach advice (my box is associated with a Physical Therapy practice).

  25. Shari says:

    Wish I would’ve found this before I went and had X-rays done. They come up negative. Now they want me to go have an EMG test done. Do I go? Or should I just keep stretching? It’s been 9 days since I felt the numbness during my OHS. My Doctor seems a lil baffled…..

  26. […] extension of your spine and squeeze the space between your shoulder blades together or you may get numbness in the thumbs.  The numbness is caused by impingement of nerves in the […]

  27. Elisa says:

    Yep, “Nancy” was definitely the culprit for me, too, earlier this week. It started with my first set, and when I asked (immediately) if this was typical, my coach said it does happen to some people. So, I finished all 5 rounds, expecting it to go away post-WOD, but it didn’t, and I’m still numb 2 days later. I wasn’t ever super-worried, but I am excited to try some stretches and get this annoyance over with 🙂
    Thanks for the advice!

  28. Crysowski says:

    Today, during a modified Nancy, my thumb, fingers, and forearm went numb in the second round of OHS. Five hours later, It is just now starting to wear off. The information on here was really helpful. Thanks!

  29. […] Skill Overhead Squats – Check out this article on how your form might effect your performance on OHS:… […]

  30. Joseph says:

    Thanks for the article. Nancy gets around, what a slut. My entire arm went dead going into my 5th set. I’ve noticed the numbness in previous workouts, but never anything like this. I used to just feel a tingling sensation in my left thumb, but was able to complete the workout. Today was a different story. I’m pretty sure it was the weight I was doing… was too much. Should have scaled it down to keep my form proper rather than get the leaning forward going.

    Does anyone feel it in the neck when doing push-ups? I’m fairly positive this is from tweaking the same nerve in the past, and never letting it fully heal… but I feel the sharp sensation up my neck every time I do push-ups as well.

  31. Crysowski says:

    Got back around to Nancy yesterday. I changed my head position so that it was slightly lower than I had been doing it before. I had a slight tingling in my right thumb, but that was the extent of it. I can only thank this article for not fighting numbness for a day and half following.

    • Julie says:

      I ran into this by googling my symptoms not even mentioning that I was in the middle of OHS! This is exactly what I experience almost 2 weeks ago. I have scheduled my appt to see an orthopedic dr just to make sure I didn’t really screw something up. I went through these exact phases while also attempting OHS for the first time. For me the numbness of my forearm and thumb have not yet reduced and now I am experiencing dull aching pain on my shoulder. After finishing that initial WOD I have stuck to doing nothing with my arms until I get it checked out. Best of Luck to all!

      Thanks for the article I will bring it with me to my appt. for reference!

  32. Jenn says:

    Thank so much for posting this article. I have been doing heavy squats for the last week and have had the identical issues. Big help!

  33. Alyssa Van Vleet says:

    How long did this feeling last? I currently received the same injury doing the same workout. I hAve seen a chiropractor and the numbness doesn’t bother me, it’s just the fact that I can’t flex my left bicep that annoys me.

    • Shari says:

      I am going on 2 weeks of numbness and very weak left bicep from Nancy. I’ve had 4-5 visits with chiropractor with no luck, but plan on seeing Dr. to get referred to PT instead.

  34. Christy Hawkins says:

    Having this same problem, thumb has been numb and asleep for 2 days from over head squats. Can you please share the exercises to relieve this??

  35. […] – on the same side the shoulder than likes to make noise. The internet tells me it’s a nerve root issue. And the internet is never […]

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