What Causes Numbness?

Medically Reviewed By Angelica Balingit, MD
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Most people will experience numbness, or loss of sensation, and the accompanying pins and needles feeling at some point. Sitting in one position too long or sleeping on your arm can cause numbness. This is usually temporary. Various medical conditions can also cause numbness. Numbness and tingling, or a pins and needles feeling, often occur in these areas of the body:

  • arms
  • legs
  • hands
  • feet

Crossing your legs, sitting in one position for too long, or sleeping on your arm can all cause numbness. Generally, this is temporary and clears quickly. Chronic numbness may be a sign of a more serious condition, however.

This article explains common causes of numbness and when to contact a doctor.

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Multiple sclerosis

Numbness in the face, body, or extremities is the most common symptom of multiple sclerosis (MS). For many people with MS, numbness may be the first symptom they experience.

This numbness may feel like:

  • loss of, diminished, or altered sensation
  • decreased feeling when touching something
  • one leg feeling different from the other
  • pins and needles sensation

There are no medications to relieve the numbness associated with MS. However, a new onset of severe numbness can be a sign of an MS relapse. In these cases, your doctor may recommend a short dose of corticosteroids to help aid in recovery.

Read more about multiple sclerosis.

Diabetic neuropathy

Diabetes can cause nerve damage, or diabetic neuropathy. It is the most common form of neuropathy and affects about 50% of people with diabetes.

Peripheral neuropathy is common in people with diabetes. Over time, high levels of glucose and fat in the blood cause damage to the nerves and blood vessels. Peripheral neuropathy typically affects the feet and legs. Sometimes, it can also affect the arms and hands.

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include:

  • numbness
  • tingling
  • pins and needles sensation
  • pain
  • weakness

Your doctor may recommend medications to help manage the pain. These may include:

  • antidepressants
  • anticonvulsants
  • creams, patches, or sprays, such as lidocaine

Your doctor may also recommend physical therapy to improve strength and balance.

Read more about diabetic neuropathy.

Stroke

A stroke occurs when something blocks the blood supply to the brain or when a blood vessel bursts in the brain. Strokes can cause lasting damage. Acting fast and getting treatment right away is important.

The most common type of stroke is an ischemic stroke. With this type, a blood clot or other particles block blood vessels in the brain.

Treatment for a stroke is time sensitive. For an ischemic stroke, receiving medication within 3 hours of the first symptoms can break up blood clots. However, many people do not receive treatment in time. A doctor may also use blood thinners or other medications to treat the stroke.

Recovery from a stroke may include:

Stroke Signs and Symptoms

It is important to know the signs and symptoms of a stroke. If you or someone near you shows any signs of a stroke, contact emergency services right away.

Signs of a stroke include:

  • Sudden weakness in your face, arm, or leg, especially only on one side of your body.
  • Sudden confusion, difficulty understanding speech, or difficulty speaking.
  • Sudden difficulty seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Sudden difficulty walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination.
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause.

Call 911 immediately if you notice these symptoms in yourself or someone else.

Read more about ischemic stroke.

Sciatica

Sciatica is not a specific diagnosis but a broad term that describes nerve pain. Sciatic pain happens when the nerve root in your lumbar spine is compressed. A condition such as a herniated disk or spinal stenosis is the actual cause of the sciatic pain. The condition causing the pain is the diagnosis your doctor will give.

Symptoms of sciatica may include:

  • numbness or weakness in your leg
  • burning or tingling sensation down your leg
  • sharp or cramping pain
  • pain that worsens when you sneeze, cough, or move

Sciatica often goes away on its own with rest. Other home treatments for sciatica include:

  • taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen
  • applying heat or cold to the painful area
  • continuing to move about; motion can help reduce inflammation
  • doing light stretches as soon as you are able

In severe cases, treatment of sciatica may require surgery.

Read more about sciatica.

Raynaud’s phenomenon

Raynaud’s phenomenon is a condition where the fingers turn different colors because of cold or stress. This can also affect the toes, though this is much rarer.

This phenomenon is due to spasms in the blood vessels which decrease blood flow to the fingertips. Symptoms of Raynaud’s phenomenon include:

  • fingers that turn white, blue, or red
  • pins and needles sensation
  • discomfort

Raynaud’s phenomenon is typically treated with lifestyle modifications such as keeping your hands and core body warm. Sometimes, medications like blood pressure medications are required to help increase blood flow.

Read more about Raynaud’s phenomenon.

Brain tumor

When brain tumors are small, you may not experience any symptoms. However, as they grow, brain tumors can cause symptoms including:

  • numbness, weakness, or loss of movement in one part of the body or on one side
  • headaches
  • seizures
  • difficulty speaking, thinking, or finding words
  • changes in personality or behavior
  • dizziness or issues with balance
  • memory loss
  • fatigue or muscle weakness
  • issues with hearing, seeing, or smelling
  • confusion or disorientation
  • unexplained nausea or vomiting

Treatment for brain tumors largely depends on the tumor’s type, grade, and location. Treatment may include surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.

Read more about brain tumors.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when one of the major nerves in the hand is compressed as it runs through the wrist. Carpal tunnel can worsen over time. Left untreated, it can cause permanent damage to the hand.

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include:

  • numbness, tingling, or burning pain, primarily in the thumb, index, or ring finger
  • shock-like sensations that radiate through the thumb and first three fingers
  • pain or tingling that can travel through the arm and shoulder
  • weakness in the hand that results in dropping things

Nonsurgical treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome typically includes:

  • taking NSAIDs
  • bracing or splinting the wrist
  • changing your activity
  • performing nerve gliding exercises
  • receiving steroid injections

If nonsurgical treatments are not effective, your doctor may recommend surgery.

Read more about carpal tunnel syndrome.

Other causes of numbness

There are many other conditions and factors that can cause numbness. These include:

When to see a doctor

Contact your doctor if you experience unexplained numbness or tingling that does not go away. Contact emergency services if you notice signs of a stroke, like numbness on one side of your body or difficulty speaking.

Other signs you should contact your doctor include:

  • numbness that comes on suddenly
  • numbness or weakness that spreads rapidly through your body
  • difficulty breathing
  • numbness or weakness that causes issues with bladder or bowel control
  • loss of sensation in your face or torso
  • having a seizure, and you have never had one before

Summary

There are many possible causes of numbness. These include sitting in one position or crossing your legs too long, or sleeping on your arm. In these instances, the numbness typically goes away quickly once the pressure is off the area.

Chronic numbness that does not go away may be a sign of another condition, such as MS, diabetes, and stroke. A stroke is a medical emergency. If you notice signs of a stroke in yourself or someone near you, contact emergency services right away.

Treatment for numbness depends on the underlying cause. Speak with your doctor about treatment options.

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Medical Reviewer: Angelica Balingit, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Dec 7
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.