Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 1, 2015

Numbness, also known as paresthesias, loss of sensation, tingling and sensory loss, can affect any part of the body. Numbness often occurs in the feet, legs, arms, hands and fingers. It may occur in the morning for some individuals, after exercise or throughout the entire day.


Definition & Facts

Numbness is the loss of feeling in any body part. It can occur symmetrically on both sides of the body or affect one single nerve. It is a common issue; it could be easily remedied or be a indication of a serious condition.


Insufficient Nutrients and Oxygen

Nerve signals are unable to issue proper signals with proper oxygen and/or nutrients. This can occur from frostbite when the cold constricts blood vessels, cholesterol buildup in the arteries, a stroke blocking oxygen from the brain, lead ingestion causing imbalances in nutrients and vitamin deficiencies resulting from alcoholism.

Nerve Compression

Holding a position for an extended period of time such as crossing a leg over another or sitting on a foot causes temporary numbness. Scar tissue from an injury or infection can cause numbness by compressing surrounding nerves. Degenerating or herniated discs can also press on the nerves in the spinal cord to cause numbness.

Nerve Damage

Lyme disease and shingles can cause numbness, diabetes often causes peripheral nerve damage in the fingers, toes, and feet and burns can damage nerves in the skin to cause numbness.

Brain Conditions

Conditions such as tumors, migraines, brain masses and seizures affect brain signals to nerves and may cause numbness. Multiple sclerosis often carries the numbness symptom as its first trait. Hyperventilation and anxiety also causes numbness.

Other causes of numbness may include:

Numbness is rarely associated with life-threatening conditions.

When to see a doctor

Although most causes of numbness are harmless, it is a medical emergency when these symptoms occur:

A doctor should be called for consultation if these lesser symptoms occur:

Once arriving at the doctor’s office, medical history inquires are conducted. It is important that the doctor covers these topics:

  • When the numbness occurred
  • Any other abnormal feelings in the body
  • If the numbness affects the face

These questions determine the severity of the numbness and will also calculate the risk for diabetes, stroke and thyroid disease. The office visit may include blood tests such as a complete blood count, thyroid function tests and vitamin levels measurement, and may also include X-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds and angiograms depending on the area affected by the numbness. A lumbar puncture, cold stimulation test or nerve conduction studies may also be used to determine the cause of numbness.

Treatment & Therapy

Mild numbness can be treated at home with a warm compress, light exercise, massaging, and Epson salt bath soaks. These home remedies treat temporary numbness that causes slight discomfort.

Physical therapy, surgery, blood sugar control, medication and nerve block injections treat numbness caused by nerve damage. Underlying medical conditions that cause the numbness are the first to be treated, but at times the cause can not be found. Surgery removes any tumors, abnormal blood vessels or damaged ligaments or bones that may be causing the nerve damage, and nerve block injections reduce inflammation and disconnect pain signals. Medications such as over-the-counter pain relievers, topical creams that contain capsaicin, antidepressants, narcotic pain medications and anti-seizure medications also relieve pain caused by nerve damage.

Numbness caused by insufficient oxygen and nutrients include treating underlying conditions such as alcoholism. A two to seven day period of detox and withdrawal in a hospital, medications to prevent an individual from drinking, psychological counseling and injected medications can effectively cure someone of an alcohol use disorder. Prevention of frostbite with adequate clothing, restoring warmth in the area and receiving prompt treatment at an emergency room also treats numbness.

Numbness caused by spinal cord injury is treated by medication, immobilization and surgery. Medication such as methylprednisolone reduces inflammation and relieve nerve cell damage, traction or a neck collar immobilizes the spine and surgery removes foreign objects, fractured bones and herniated discs that can cause numbness. Other treatments such as electronic aids, robotic gait training and electrical stimulation devices can also remedy spinal injury issues that cause numbness.

Numbness caused by a stroke is treated first with aspirin to thin the blood. Stroke medications such as tissue plasminogen and statins may also be applied to the arteries through a catheter or orally. A catheter embolectomy may be used if these drugs do not break up the blood clot; the catheter is placed through the area or blood vessels and broken with a piercing device or a clot-busting agent. Decompressive craniectomy treats massive strokes by opening a piece of the skull to prevent pressure buildup.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Prevention techniques for numbness include taking breaks during repetitious activities to increase circulation in the body. Getting up to move the body around at regular 30-minute intervals prevent numbness caused by sitting for extended time periods.

Avoiding alcohol overuse prevents numbness caused by the body losing nutrients from alcohol overuse, and maintaining a healthy diet and active lifestyle can prevent numbness caused by decreased circulation from arteries blocked by cholesterol. Avoiding strenuous activities that require sudden movements if possible prevents spinal cord injuries that could cause numbness.

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