All of the nerves that travel to the hand and fingers begin together at the shoulder: the radial nerve, the median nerve, and the ulnar nerve. These nerves carry signals from the brain to the muscles that move the arm, hand, fingers, and thumb. The nerves also carry signals back to the brain about sensations such as touch, pain, and temperature.
The radial nerve runs along the thumb-side edge of the forearm. It wraps around the end of the radius bone toward the back of the hand. It gives sensation to the back of the hand from the thumb to the third finger. It also supplies the back of the thumb and just beyond the main knuckle of the back surface of the ring and middle fingers.
The median nerve travels through a tunnel within the wrist called the carpal tunnel. This nerve gives sensation to the thumb, index finger, long finger, and half of the ring finger. It also sends a nerve branch to control the thenar muscles of the thumb. The thenar muscles help move the thumb and let you touch the pad of the thumb to the tips each of each finger on the same hand, a motion called opposition.
The ulnar nerve travels through a separate tunnel, called Guyon's canal. This tunnel is formed by two carpal bones, the pisiform and hamate, and the ligament that connects them. After passing through the canal, the ulnar nerve branches out to supply feeling to the little finger and half the ring finger. Branches of this nerve also supply the small muscles in the palm and the muscle that pulls the thumb toward the palm.
The nerves that travel to the hand are subject to problems. Constant bending and straightening of the wrist and fingers can lead to irritation or pressure on the nerves within their tunnels and cause problems such as pain, numbness, and weakness in the hand, fingers, and thumb.