What Can Cause a Wrist Drop?

Medically Reviewed on 6/21/2022
What Can Cause a Wrist Drop?
Wrist drop is a symptom of radial nerve palsy in which a person cannot lift the wrist after placing it over a table.

Injury to the radial nerves or radial nerve palsy of the wrist can cause a wrist drop.

The radial nerves are responsible for:

  • Backward bending of the wrists.
  • Movement and sensation of the wrist and fingers.

Radial nerve palsy can be caused by several conditions that include:

  • Fracture of the humerus bone (the long bone of the upper arm)
  • Growths such as tumors or cysts in the arm area
  • Devices such as
    • Tight watches pressing on the wrist
    • Crutches pressing under the arm
  • Dep cuts on the wrist or arm
  • Severe systemic nutritional deficiencies such as thiamine deficiencies
  • Injuries caused by repetitive motion or keeping your arm in an awkward position for too long while sleeping or working
  • Bruises that put pressure on the radial nerve
  • Infection or inflammation (rarely)
  • Stab wound to the shoulder area
  • Lead poisoning
  • Extensive leaning on the elbow

Moreover, excessive use of your arm and work-related or sports-related accidents can result in radial nerve injury. Because the radial nerves tend to move back and forth over the bones of the wrist and forearm, there are high chances for the nerve to get trapped, pinched, or strained from these actions.

Certain health conditions can compress or damage your radial nerve, which includes:

These conditions can cause inflammation or fluid retention, which can cause nerve compression, leading to radial nerve palsy.

A wrist drop can be a sign of an underlying medical condition.

What is a wrist drop?

Wrist drop is a symptom of radial nerve palsy in which a person cannot lift the wrist after placing it over a table. For example, if you hold your hand parallel to the floor with the back of your hand facing the ceiling, let your hand hang limp where the fingers point downward. A person with a wrist drop cannot lift their hand upward in which the fingers are pointing toward the ceiling.

The radial nerves travel underside of the arm and are responsible for the following functions:

  1. Controlling the movement of the triceps muscle located at the back of the upper arm
  2. Extending the wrist and fingers
  3. Controlling sensation

Any trauma or injury to the radial nerve due to repeated usage or other factors can lead to radial nerve palsy.

What are the symptoms of a wrist drop?

Symptoms of a wrist drop include:

  • Wrist hangs limp
  • Unable to lift the wrist
  • Problems stretching or aligning the wrist or fingers
  • Difficulty making a fist

Besides a wrist drop, other symptoms of radial nerve palsy affecting a person’s arm, wrist, hand, and/or fingers may include:

  • Loss of function 
  • Pinching and grasping problems
  • Pain
  • Weakness
  • Numbness
  • Inability to control muscles

Who has the most significant risk of radial nerve palsy?

Several risk factors can increase the likelihood of getting radial nerve palsy, including:

  • Gender: Radial nerve palsy is more common in men than in women.
  • Occupational risks: Jobs that involve repetitive motion and awkward postures or working positions may increase the risk of radial nerve palsy.
  • Other injuries: People getting exposed to frequent injuries such as broken bones, dislocation, significant bruises, and injuries requiring the use of crutches are at a high risk of radial nerve palsy.


The term arthritis refers to stiffness in the joints. See Answer

What are the treatment options for a wrist drop?

Treatment of a wrist drop depends on the underlying cause. In some cases, the wrist drop may be temporary and goes away when the underlying cause is corrected. In the majority of cases, the wrist drop gets corrected with conservative treatment. 

Treatment of a wrist drop and radial nerve palsy may include:

  • Medication
    • Anti-inflammatories
    • Pain medicines
  • Physical therapy to strengthen muscles and increase the range of motion
  • Surgery that aims to

Surgery aims to repair any damage to the nerve or relieve the entrapped nerve and subsequent pressure on the nerve.

Recovery depends on the severity of the injury and may take weeks or months for a nerve to heal after treatment.

How can you prevent a wrist drop?

Below are some effective ways to prevent a wrist drop:

  • Follow proper ergonomics.
  • Maintain a good posture at work.
  • Use pillows to avoid awkward sleeping positions.
  • Take breaks between tasks in an occupation that requires repetitive motion.
  • Switch between tasks that require different movements.
Medically Reviewed on 6/21/2022
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