If you’ve ever experienced tingling and numbness in your hands and feet (or wrists and elbows), you know it feels a lot worse than it sounds. There are many reasons why you could be having these sensations, so it’s extremely important to identify the potential causes. This is especially true if you have chronic pain because tingling is a symptom for many chronic conditions.
Not all tingling indicates a serious health problem. Sometimes, you may feel nerve pain or experience a lack of nerve function that feels like pins and needles. However, once you start moving your limb, the tingling may subside. If this happens, it’s likely due to restricted blood flow. Although it feels awkward and uncomfortable, it’s only temporary.
You may have also had your foot fall asleep before. This may happen when you unknowingly sit or sleep in an odd position. It also resolves itself as soon as you allow blood to flow normally to your extremities.
If you experience unexplainable and frequent tingling and numbness in your hands or feet, read our guide for determining your next steps. We’ll give you some background on tingling, and let you know when it’s time to worry.
Identifying the sensations
A tingling sensation in your hands or feet can feel like constant pinpricks or a low humming of electricity and constant vibration that’s impossible to ignore. Some even describe it as a zapping sensation that can quickly shift from bearable to painful.
It can be very aggravating and easily disrupt your normal day-to-day activities. We instinctively shake our extremities – wiggling and moving our toes or fingers – in the hopes of increasing circulation. Unfortunately, sometimes that doesn’t work.
Numbness is a more complex feeling. It can be far more concerning as well. If you can’t feel your hands or feet or feel as if you can’t control them, that’s numbness. At the height of my numbness, I couldn’t feel my own hand on my skin when I touched my foot.
What tingling means
Tingling is not as serious as numbness. In fact, many of the conditions that cause tingling are temporary. However, pay careful attention if that tingling is associated with pain.
Peripheral neuropathy, which results from damage to the peripheral nerves, may be causing your tingling. These nerves send signals to your brain about any physical sensations you are feeling. When the nerves are damaged or destroyed, they might send the wrong signals to your brain, making it seem like you are in pain when nothing is causing it.
Many underlying conditions can lead to peripheral neuropathy. If you have any of these conditions, speak to a doctor about your symptoms:
- Alcohol abuse
- Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
- Infections (e.g. Lyme disease, shingles, Epstein-Barr virus, hepatitis, HIV)
- Vitamin deficiencies
In addition, avoid putting pressure on a nerve. Traumas from falls, accidents or sports injuries can damage nerves or cause pinched nerves.
Furthermore, pain combined with tingling and/or numbness is a much more serious matter. Think of it as a warning sign that your body is breaking down in some way. If the pain is severe or chronic, you could have nerve damage that’s preventing normal body function.
Why numbness matters
By itself, occasional numbness may not be serious, because it’s rarely a result of brain and spinal cord problems. But, numbness combined with tingling or pain can indicate carpal tunnel syndrome or a more serious health issue, like multiple sclerosis (MS). In the most extreme instances, you may suffer issues with your central nervous system.
Visit your doctor if you experience numbness – especially combined with tingling and pain – in your hands or feet. Your doctor may need to perform blood tests as well as a physical exam to determine the cause.
If you experience numbness for more than a day or two, don’t ignore it. Talk to your healthcare team. At a minimum, you may have suffered nerve damage. Your body could be on the brink of a much more serious problem like:
- a slipped or herniated dis
- a blood clot
- signs of infection from a previous injury or illness
- a decline in health due to a worsening existing condition
It starts with tingling and numbness
The thing about tingling and numbness in hands and feet – with or without the addition of pain – is it’s often the first symptom for a variety of conditions. It’s your body’s way of getting your attention to let you know something is wrong.
Tingling and numbness are the main indicators of degenerative spinal conditions like osteoarthritis. This degenerative condition is also referred to as spinal stenosis. People suffering from spinal stenosis begin to feel symptoms as their spine worsens. “When stenosis is present in the cervical spine or neck,” says Neel Anand, MD, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in spinal deformity correction at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, “the symptoms can include neck pain, numbness and tingling in the arm, hand or fingers on the affected side.”
Similarly, many types of spinal injuries trigger tingling and/or numbness. These include:
- bulging discs
- herniated discs
- spinal tumors
- other spinal injuries
Additional causes of tingling and numbness
Lupus, an autoimmune disease, often reveals itself through numb feelings in the hands or feet. The same symptom of numbness tends to present itself in multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic, progressive disease that damages nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
If you have diabetes, tingling and numbness in the hands and feet can be a sign of diabetic neuropathy, a serious side effect of type 1 and type 2 diabetes that can cause long-term nerve damage. Similarly, if you experience pain, muscle weakness, numbness and tingling in the hands or feet, that can be a sign of kidney disease or worse, kidney failure.
Other potential sneaky triggers that cause tingling and numbness include vitamin deficiencies.
“Given the array of symptoms [B12 deficiency symptoms] can cause,” says Patrick J. Skerrett, former editor of the Harvard Health blog, “the condition can be overlooked or confused with something else. Vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms may include:
- strange sensations, numbness, or tingling in the hands, legs or feet
- difficulty walking (staggering, balance problems)
- a swollen, inflamed tongue
- difficulty thinking and reasoning (cognitive difficulties) or memory loss
Luckily vitamin deficiencies are treatable. The key is to identify the condition quickly.
Prolonged tingling and numbness can be serious concerns. If you suffer from either symptom, please talk to your doctor immediately. She will be able to identify the severity of the problem and offer the best course for treatment.
A personal testimony of pain
Speaking from personal experience, I made the mistake of ignoring unexplainable tingling and numbness in my left foot. Progressively, it got worse and eventually, the pain, numbness, and tingling moved up my foot and into my left leg. I’ll never know if catching it sooner would’ve prevented my herniated L5. My advice for anyone in a similar situation is to go to the doctor sooner rather than later.
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