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Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Hand Cutaneous Innervation

Editor: Michael P. Soos Updated: 10/17/2022 6:19:23 PM


Three independent nerves supply the cutaneous innervation of the hand. From lateral to medial, these nerves include the superficial branch of the radial nerve, the median nerve, and the ulnar nerve. These peripheral nerves originate from the C5 to T1 levels of the spinal column. The sensory distribution discussed here includes both the ventral and dorsal aspects of the hand ending proximally at the level of the wrist. Also briefly discussed here will be a set of muscles innervated by these nerves as they supply the cutaneous innervation of the hand.[1]

Structure and Function

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Structure and Function


The cutaneous innervation of the hand is formed primarily by the terminal branches of three nerves: the median nerve, the radial nerve, and the ulnar nerve. These nerves are formed proximally by the brachial plexus, which arises from the cervical root levels C5 to T1. These nerves course through the axilla and various compartments of the arm and forearm until reaching the wrist where each nerve's sensory and motor branches distribute throughout the hand. Both the radial and median nerve receive and send input via each brachial plexus level C5 to T1 while the ulnar nerve receives and sends inputs via just the C8 and T1 spinal levels. The anatomic course of these nerves is discussed in greater detail below in the 'neves' section of this article. These sensory branches include the superficial radial nerve, superficial and dorsal ulnar nerve, and the palmar branch of the median nerve. These nerves then give off digital nerve branches that feed into the individual digits providing cutaneous sensory information to the brain.[2][3]


The function of these nerves summates the cutaneous innervation of the hand as well as the muscular innervation of a few muscles discussed in the muscles portion of this document. They provide the sensation of touch, pressure, pain, and temperature to the brain. These nerves contain sympathetic and autonomic afferent fibers and sympathetic efferent fibers providing innervation to the cutaneous blood vessels, sweat glands, and arrector pili muscles of hair follicles. These autonomic afferent fibers primarily supply the cutaneous innervation.[4]


As follows with all peripheral nerves, the cutaneous innervation of the hand arises from neural crest cells, which derive from the embryonic ectoderm. These cells take the form of bilateral strips at the junction of the ectoderm and neural plate, which detach and migrate with the merging of the two ectodermal regions during embryogenesis. These neural crest cells migrate in a rostral to caudal distribution ending in the formation of the peripheral nervous system, which includes the cutaneous innervation of the hand.[5]

Blood Supply and Lymphatics

The blood supply of the hand takes the form of the superficial and deep palmar arches, which is an anastomotic landmark formed from the ulnar and radial artery rami at the level of the wrist. These arches give off palmar digital arteries that feed the hand's individual digits, nerves, and muscles. The ulnar aspect of the arch follows with the course of the superficial ulnar nerve, discussed below, separate from it at the level of the bifurcation of this nerve. Branches of the median nerve follow the path of their respective palmar arteries.[6][7]


Superficial Branch of Radial Nerve

This nerve yields sensory cutaneous innervation to a significant portion of the hand's dorsolateral aspect. The anatomic course of this nerve follows the course of the radial nerve. Beginning lying slightly lateral to the radial artery, it runs hidden beneath the brachioradialis muscle. It continues this path until approximately 7 cm above the wrist, where it then pierces the deep fascia and divides into two branches: lateral and medial. The lateral branch yields cutaneous innervation to the thumb's radial dorsal aspect, then joining the lateral antebrachial cutaneous nerve's dorsal terminal branch. The median branch course is slightly more complicated, first communicating with the lateral antebrachial cutaneous, just proximal to the level of the wrist, and then communicates with the dorsal branch of the ulnar nerve on the dorsal aspect of the hand distal the level of the wrist. Along this course, distal to the wrist, the superficial radial nerve gives off fibers innervating the dorsum of the hand. Around the anatomical level just described, it branches into terminal digital nerves with each innervating specific portions of the hand as follows:

  • The first branch innervates the ulnar dorsal aspect of the thumb.
  • The second branch innervates the radial dorsal aspect of the index finger.
  • The third innervates the dorsal aspect of the joining sides of the index and middle finger,
  • Finally, the fourth communicates with a filament of the dorsal ulnar nerve giving innervation to the dorsal aspect of the joining sides of the middle and ring fingers.

Aside from the thumb, the dorsal terminal aspect of the fingers discussed here can be innervated by terminal branches of the median nerve, as discussed below.[8][9]

Median Nerve

The first branch supplying cutaneous innervation is the palmar cutaneous branch of the median nerve. This branch begins just proximal to the wrist and travels superficial to the flexor retinaculum, then giving off terminal fibers that supply cutaneous innervation to much of the lateral palm. After the median nerve passes through the carpal tunnel, it commonly divides into a smaller lateral branch and a thicker medial branch.  The medial branch divides into the two common palmar digital nerves. The lateral branch divides into the recurrent median nerve as well as three proper digital nerves. The recurrent median nerve supplies motor innervation to the thenar muscle group, which includes opponens pollicis, abductor pollicis brevis, and the flexor pollicis brevis; it does not supply any of the cutaneous innervations of the hand and will receive any further discussion. Starting with the three proper digital nerves off the lateral branch, two of these supply the cutaneous sensory innervation for both ventral lateral aspects of the thumb while the remaining one supplies sensory innervation for the radial ventral aspect of the index finger. Next, the two common palmar digital nerves arising from the medial division of the median nerve yield their own proper digital nerves. These proper digital nerves innervate the radial ventral aspect of the index finger, the ventral aspects of the middle finger, and the radial ventral aspect of the ring finger. These terminal branches may also innervate the terminal dorsal end of the digits just discussed.[10][11]

Ulnar Nerve

This nerve yields sensory cutaneous innervation to the dorsomedial and ventromedial aspect of the hand as well as motor innervation to the palmar brevis muscle; this is accomplished via two nerves: the dorsal cutaneous branch of the ulnar nerve and the palmar cutaneous branch of the ulnar nerve. The dorsal cutaneous ulnar branch originates, on average, 5 cm proximal to the ulnar styloid process, which then travels superficially to the dorsum of the hand. Here it branches into common and proper digital nerves. The common digital nerve innervates the dorsum of the hand before splitting into more proper digital nerves. The summation of these proper digital nerves innervates the dorsum of the fifth and, most commonly, the ulnar dorsal aspect half of the fourth digit. The ulnar nerve bifurcates into the superficial and deep branches within the Guyon canal. The superficial branch goes on to become the palmar cutaneous branch of the ulnar nerve within the palm. Here it gives off fibers that innervate the ulnar aspect of the palm. The nerve then branches into proper and common digital nerves that supply the cutaneous innervation to the ventral aspect of the fifth digit as well as most commonly to the ulnar ventral aspect of the fourth digit.[12][13][14][15]


The relevant muscles and their most commonly associated innervations are as follows, with the exception of the recurrent median nerve discussed prior[10][16][17][18]:

  • Palmaris brevis muscle - the superficial branch of the ulnar nerve
  • First and second lumbricals - median nerve
  • Opponens pollicis - the recurrent branch of the median nerve
  • Abductor pollicis brevis - the recurrent branch of the median nerve 
  • Flexor pollicis brevis - a recurrent branch of the median nerve 
  • Lumbricals:
    • 1 - Median nerve
    • 2 - Median nerve
    • 3 - Deep branch of the ulnar nerve
    • 4 - Deep branch of the ulnar nerve 

Physiologic Variants

Anatomical variations primarily involve discrepancies between the anastomotic connections between the branches of the nerves discussed as well as variation in the origin of the common and proper digital nerves. Other variations usually involve the course or origin of the nerves as they enter the hand. Some of these variations are outlined here below. 

  • Median Nerve:
    • The anastomotic connection between the proper digital nerves of the median nerve and the superficial branch of the ulnar nerve will sometimes originate from the median nerve instead of the ulnar nerve. The clinical consequence of this is that the median nerve may innervate the entire ring finger instead of only the radial half.[19][20][21]
    • The median nerve has numerous branching pattern variations, both proximal, distal, and inside the carpal tunnel.[10]
  • Radial Nerve:
    • A variation involving the superficial branch of the radial nerve as it courses through the forearm where it maintains superficial to the brachioradialis until the level of the wrist. In this position, the nerve may be confused with either the medial or lateral antebrachial cutaneous nerves and thus should always be a consideration during surgery of this region.[22]
  • Ulnar Nerve: 
    • Occurring at the level of the hook of hamate, five types of bifurcations described[10]:
      • Type 1: Birfucates into a superficial sensory branch of the ulnar nerve (SSBUN) and a dorsal branch of the ulnar nerve (DBUN) 
      • Type 2: Trifurcates into a DBUN, 3rd digit common digital nerve, and a 5th digit proper digital nerve 
      • Type 3: Similar to type 1 but the 5th digit proper digital nerve originates off the DBUN 
      • Type 4: Trifurcates like type 2 but has an additional anastomotic superficial branch
      • Type 5: Trifurcates like type 2 but has an additional distal DBUN off the 5th digit proper digital nerve 

Surgical Considerations

Any surgery near the entire course of the radial, ulnar, or median nerve could have downstream cutaneous sensory deficits of the hand if trauma occurs. Also, any surgery involving the brachial plexus or the spinal cord levels C5 to T1 could present with similar or identical deficits distally. Of note, carpal tunnel release holds the risk for median nerve damage as it enters the hand through the wrist. Also, anatomic variations such as those discussed prior should always be taken into consideration when working within the space of the forearm, wrist, or hand.[23][24][25][26]

Clinical Significance

There are significant clinical sequelae involving each the median, ulnar, and radial nerves. DIscussion of some follows, but it is important to note that there are relevant clinical consequences from almost every aspect of medicine. 


  • Brachial Plexopathy: The brachial plexus is a major anatomical landmark residing just lateral to the caudal cervical vertebrae. Originating from the spinal levels C5 to T1, it supplies the nerve fibers of the cutaneous innervation of the hand. Any damage to the brachial plexus will have a downstream motor and sensory impairment. These injuries usually present with numbness, tingling, or pain of the digits, as well as muscle weakness of the regions corresponding to their cervical spinal origin. Damage to the brachial plexus can come from any source, including trauma, iatrogenic, malignancy, compression, and ischemia.[27]
  • Cervical Stenosis: In this clinical correlation, the transverse foramina of the cervical spine vertebrae become narrowed from osteoblastic changes. This narrowing can result in compression of the cervical spinal roots as they exit and, in severe cases, ischemia of these roots. Alteration to the conduction of these nerve roots via compression or ischemia leads to impaired sensory and strength of the corresponding upper extremity. Other presenting symptoms include neck pain, clumsiness of the ipsilateral upper extremity, burning, tingling, or numbness of the extremity.[28]
  • Wrist Fractures: Any trauma to the wrist involving the displacement of the distal ulna or radius can lead to compression, trauma, or ischemia of their corresponding nerves. In this clinical correlation, the sensory and motor deficits are most often limited to the trauma's location and the distal aspects from there. This clinical picture, combined with a good history, should increase clinical suspicion of secondary neurovascular damage.[29]


  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome:  This syndrome occurs when compression of the median nerve occurs while it traverses the narrow corridor of the carpal tunnel. This compression can occur secondary to swelling, trauma, and synovial thickening. Symptoms include numbness, tingling, burning, or pain, which primarily localizes to the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers. Weakness and fine motor control deficits may be present, as well. Risk factors include a hereditary component, repetitive hand use, improper hand or wrist positioning, pregnancy, and various health conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and non-euthyroid states. Mild carpal tunnel syndrome is treatable with splinting, rest, and exercises, while more severe forms require surgery.[30]


  • Wartenberg Syndrome: This is an entrapment syndrome involving the superficial branch of the radial nerve, also called cheiralgia paresthetica. Compression is thought to primarily occur at the posterior border of the brachioradialis where the superficial radial nerves transition from superficial to deep, and it is at greatest risk of compression from repeated muscle use. Other etiologies include trauma, clothing that is too tight, and nerve stretch injuries. Presentation is primarily sensory deficits of the dorsal aspect of the thumb and dorsal first webspace. Other symptoms include burning, tingling, and clumsiness of this region.[31]


  • Cubital Tunnel Syndrome: This is entrapment of the ulnar nerve as it passes through the cubital tunnel at the medial aspect of the elbow. This condition commonly occurs due to maintaining a flexed elbow for prolonged periods where the nerve is stretched and becomes inflamed. Also, if the ulnar nerve slides in and out of the tunnel during flexion, this repetitive motion can also be a source of inflammation and compression. Other causes of note are anything that leads to fluid buildup within the elbow, which can either be from a traumatic source of secondary to another underlying illness. The presentation usually involves an early sensation of pain at the level of the elbow, but often, the syndrome does not present until it affects the hand. In this case, it is most common to find burning, tingling, clumsiness, or numbness of the pinky and ring fingers.[32]


(Click Image to Enlarge)
Hand Cutaneous Innervation, Superficial branch of radial nerve, Palmar cutaneous branch of median nerve, Palmar cutaneous bra
Hand Cutaneous Innervation, Superficial branch of radial nerve, Palmar cutaneous branch of median nerve, Palmar cutaneous branch of ulnar nerve, Superficial branch of radial nerve, Dorsal cutaneous branch of ulnar nerve
Illustration by Emma Gregory



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