What causes numbness and tingling?
But long term, severe, or disabling numbness and tingling is usually a sign of neurological conditions or nerve damage.
This article focuses on common causes and treatments for numbness and tingling, including multiple sclerosis (MS).
Causes in different parts of the body
Numbness and tingling may occur after resting the head on a crooked arm.
Numbness (lost, reduced, or altered sensation) and tingling (an odd prickling sensation) are types of temporary paresthesia.
These sensations commonly occur after sitting or standing in a particular position or even wearing tight clothing for too long. This puts pressure on nerves and blood vessels, reducing sensation.
Symptoms usually go away soon after the nerve pressure is reduced or relieved.
Numbness and tingling are two of the most common and early symptoms of MS.
MS often causes mild to severe numbness and tingling on the skin or certain parts of the body, including the:
- arms and hands
- legs and feet
- body, often across the body in a band (sometimes described as an MS hug)
The numbness and tingling symptoms of MS are rarely disabling or permanent. But severe numbness can make it difficult for a person to use the numb body part, which may interfere with everyday activities.
For example, numb hands can make holding things, typing, or self-care hard or impossible. If someone has numb feet or legs, walking and driving can be dangerous. People with numbness and tingling in their face may also mistakenly bite their tongue or inner mouth.
Severe numbness can make it hard to tell when things are very hot or cold, increasing the risk of burns and frostbite.
Other conditions affecting the central nervous system that can cause numbness and tingling include:
- Stroke. Sudden numbness in the arm, leg, or face, especially on one side of the body, is an early symptom of stroke.
- Mini-strokes. Transient ischemic attacks, or mini-strokes, can cause one side of the face to go numb and droop.
- Encephalitis. In severe cases, inflammation in the brain and spinal cord can cause a loss of sensation in parts of the body or partial paralysis in the arms or legs.
- Transverse myelitis. Inflammation in the spinal cord can cause a band-like sensation across the torso, as well as weakness in the legs and sometimes arms.
- Tumors. Tumors can put pressure on parts of the spinal cord and brain, resulting in numbness and tingling. Tumors in the cerebral cortex (outer region of the brain) tend to cause numbness on one side of the body. Tumors in and close to the cranial nerves tend to cause facial numbness and weakness. Tumors impacting the spinal cord can cause numbness, usually in both arms and legs.
- Back and neck damage. Back and neck injuries can cause nerve damage or compression, resulting in numbness and tingling.
- Magnesium deficiency. Magnesium helps regulate many systems in the body, including proper nerve function. Severe magnesium deficiencies, or hypomagnesemia, can cause numbness and tingling.
Some other conditions that target specific parts of the body can cause numbness and tingling. Body parts include:
Feet and legs
Hands and feet
A number of medications may cause peripheral neuropathy.
Alcoholic liver damage can cause peripheral neuropathy, affecting the hands and feet.
A range of medications can also cause peripheral neuropathy, such as:
- blood pressure or heart medications
- chemotherapy and cancer medications
- medications for HIV and AIDS
- anti-alcohol medications
- skin medications
- infection fighting medications
Carpal tunnel syndrome can also cause numbness, tingling, and pain in the hands and fingers. It occurs when the median nerve, a major nerve in the arm, becomes compressed in the space where it travels through the wrist.
Toothaches and infections can compress facial nerves, causing numbness in the face and mouth.
To diagnose the cause of numbness and tingling, a doctor will review a person's medical history, do a physical examination, and ask questions about symptoms. They may then order laboratory tests, such as blood tests, to confirm or rule out potential causes.
In some cases, a doctor may request further testing, such as MRIs or other imaging tests. Electromyography and nerve conduction studies can help assess the extent and type of nerve damage, especially when neuropathy causes the tingling.
Treatment for numbness and tingling depends on its cause.
Numbness related to MS is usually relatively harmless and painless.
In cases of severe or painful numbness, treatment may involve a short round of corticosteroids, which also quickens recovery by reducing inflammation.
Several medications designed to treat different conditions may also help reduce numbness and tingling associated with MS, such as:
- amitriptyline, imipramine, and nortriptyline
Several different treatment plans may help reduce or manage numbness and tingling not related to MS, such as:
- Stroke. Medications to treat clots for ischemic stroke (if within 3 hours of first symptoms), and surgery or endovascular procedures for hemorrhagic stroke.
- Transverse myelitis. Pain medications, antivirals, intravenous immunoglobulin, or plasma exchange therapy.
- Meningitis. Antibiotics, anticonvulsants, and corticosteroids.
- Tumors. Surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and other drug therapies.
- Diabetic neuropathy. Physical activity, healthful diet, following diabetes treatment plans, checking feet daily for changes, and getting regular foot exams.
- Carpal tunnel. Wrist braces, over-the-counter pain medications, nerve gliding exercises, or surgery. Avoiding trigger activities.
- Pernicious anemia. Vitamin B12 injections, pills, or nose gels or sprays.
- Hypocalcemia and hypomagnesemia. Infusions or supplements, dietary changes, staying away from triggers, treating underlying causes.
The best way to prevent numbness and tingling depends on the cause.
However, several lifestyle habits may help prevent or reduce numbness and tingling associated with MS, such as:
- eating a low fat, high fiber diet
- getting enough vitamin D and biotin (a B vitamin)
- taking regular moderate exercise
- learning strategies to cope with heat and cold
- having a regular sleep schedule
- limiting or avoiding alcohol and smoking
- managing and reducing stress
Prevention strategies for conditions other than MS that can cause numbness and tingling include:
- eating a low fat, high fiber diet rich in fruits and vegetables
- limiting salt (sodium) intake
- maintaining a healthy body weight and body mass index (BMI)
- getting 2.5 hours of moderate intensity aerobic activity weekly
- limiting alcohol intake and stop smoking
- washing hands with soap and water regularly
- avoiding sharing food or other objects with people potentially exposed to infective conditions
- staying up-to-date with vaccinations
- avoiding radiation exposure
- limiting repetitive hand or wrist motions
- eating foods rich in vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium or take supplements
- treating back pain early and limit activities that make the pain worse
- getting psychotherapy
- managing stress
When to see a doctor
If a person experiences persistent numbness or tingling, they should speak to their doctor.
See a doctor if numbness or tingling is persistent or occurs without an obvious cause, or if they accompany any of the following symptoms :
- vision problems
- muscle weakness and cramps
- bladder and bowel problems
- intense anxiety
- back or neck pain
- reduced appetite
People who experience certain symptoms with numbness and tingling may need emergency medical attention. These symptoms include:
- symptoms on one side of the body
- confusion, trouble speaking, or slurred speech
- chest pain
- severe headache
- sudden fever
- nausea and vomiting
- stiff neck
- light sensitivity
- pale or yellowed skin
- irregular heartbeat
Many conditions can cause numbness and tingling, including MS.
Usually, the severity, frequency, and location of symptoms depend on the cause.
Although some causes have no cure, many have symptoms that are temporary, painless, or respond to at home care.
Several lifestyle habits, medications, and types of therapy can help reduce or prevent symptoms.
People with unexplained numbness and tingling should talk to a doctor as early as possible. The outlook for most conditions associated with numbness and tingling improves with early treatment. For example, treating MS early can help reduce the risk of severe complications, especially disability.