Numbness is a broad term to describe an unusual sensation in any part of the body, but most commonly involving the hands and feet, sometimes including the arms and legs. Numbness may also be experienced around the mouth or in almost any part of the body. This numbing sensation may range from a tingling feeling, pins-and-needles sensation, to a complete lack of sensation or physical response to outer stimulus. Numbness of the hands and feet may be harmless and temporary, such as when one is exposed to extremely cold temperatures fingers will feel numb. One can also have episodes of numbness or tingling in the fingers and around the mouth when experiencing attacks of anxiety or even migraines. However, it may also be a sign of a serious condition, such as a nerve damage, which can become progressive and permanent.
Numbness may also be associated with burning sensation, sharp pains, or weakness of the arm, leg, or facial muscles. Depending on the cause or condition that causes this symptom, numbness may be a sign of a temporary condition or a serious disease.
Causes of Numbness in Hands and Feet
According to experts the most common cause of numbness in the hands and feet that results in complete lack of ability to feel or react to an external stimulus is nerve damage. However, there are many other physical and emotional factors that can cause a temporary, progressive or a permanent numbness in the hands and feet.
- Nutritional deficiencies - A poor diet that is deficient in essential vitamins like A, B5, B6, B12, and D, and minerals like iron, calcium, potassium, sodium and phosphorus can lead to various symptoms, including numbness or tingling in the hands and feet. To determine if any of these nutritional deficiencies is the cause of numbness, blood tests may be done.
- Nerve compression - Numbness is a common sensation, accompanied by heaviness of the arm or leg, after a person sits or stands in the same position for a long time. This is caused by prolonged compression of a nerve, although the tingling or pins-and-needles sensation is often short lasting and relieved by a change in position. Repeated and prolonged nerve compression which results in nerve damage can cause a more serious problem that can lead to pain and weakness of the hands or feet. Examples include: a) Carpal tunnel syndrome - compression of the nerves of the wrist which commonly occurs in people who use computer keyboards for long periods, or those who use their hands and wrists repeatedly. b) Herniated disk or slipped disk - involves compression of spinal nerves that leads to pain and numbness of the back, legs, and feet. c) Traumatic compression of nerves - Any traumatic event that may result in nerve compression and damage can lead to numbness and other symptoms in the hands and feet.
- Diseases that involve nerve damage - There are many diseases that can involve the nerves and result in numbness, weakness, paralysis, or pain. These include diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and seizures.
- Conditions that result in reduced blood circulation - Some conditions that are characterized by low blood perfusion can cause either temporary or permanent numbing of the hands and feet. Low temperatures can constrict the blood vessels and cause numbness of the hands, feet, nose, and ears. People who suffer from Raynaud's syndrome have a problem with circulation which causes them to feel numb when exposed to cold temperatures.
- More serious conditions include stroke, angina, and peripheral artery disease, where there is a major reduction in blood flow to the brain, heart, or other parts of the body, leading to weakness, numbness and sometimes, even paralysis.
- Hypothyroidism or an underactive thyroid gland can lead to a host of symptoms including generalized weakness, fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold and numbness.
- Other conditions can lead to numbing of the hands and feet, including various toxins, insect bites viral infections like shingles, alcoholism, and radiation therapy.
Emotional or psychological factors
Emotional or psychological factors can also cause numbing of the hands and feet. Acute stress and anxiety can sometimes cause one to breathe fast or hyperventilate. Fast, shallow breathing for even a few minutes can cause tingling of the lips, hands, and feet, sometimes associated with stiffness and even fainting.
Migraines are sometimes preceded by numbness, and this may also be accompanied by heaviness in the neck, around the mouth, the hands, and the feet.
Less common causes
Less common causes of numbness of the hands and feet include HIV/AIDS, syphilis, and other autoimmune diseases like Guillain-Barre syndrome and Sjogren's syndrome.
Treatment for Numbness in Hands and Feet
Home remedies - Numbness that is caused by temporary nerve compression, nutritional deficiency, changes in temperature, and other temporary conditions may be treated at home.
- Sometimes mild cases of numbness will go away on its own without treatment.
- A change in body position, stretching and massaging the affected hand or foot will relieve numbness caused by staying in one position for a long time.
- Keeping warm, using a hot compress and some massage can stimulate blood flow when one feels numb because of extreme cold.
- For symptoms of nutritional deficiency, improving the diet and taking dietary supplements can also eliminate tingling sensations.
- For tingling due to anxiety attacks, breathing into a paper bag and relaxing can reduce hyperventilation, stiffness, and numbing of the fingers.
Medical treatments - In some cases, however, numbness may be a symptom of a more serious condition. Treating the underlying condition after proper diagnosis may or may not completely relieve the numbness in the hands and feet.
- In these conditions, one has to get treatment that may involve surgical removal of compression, repair of a nerve or medical management to improve blood circulation.
- Autoimmune diseases, hypothyroidism, infection, and other medical conditions must also be given proper attention to reduce symptoms, including numbness, weakness, and fatigue.
When to See a Doctor
Numbness may be temporary and mild, but one should seek immediate medical help in these situations:
- Inability to move (paralyzed) or extreme weakness with numbness
- Trauma to the head, neck, and/or back, with numbness or tingling
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Loss of consciousness or confusion
- Slurring of speech, changes in vision, difficulty in walking
- Chest pain
Less urgent, but otherwise important reasons to consult a doctor include:
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet with no obvious reason and lasts for more than a day
- Frequent urination, which may indicate a spinal cord problem
- Numbness that gets worse on walking
- Numbness with pain in the neck, forearms or fingers, which may indicate nerve compression
- Presence of a persistent rash, which may be related to an autoimmune problem
- Numbness accompanied by muscle spasm, dizziness, or other unusual symptoms
The information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to constitute as medical advice. Consult your health care provider if you are in concerned about your symptoms for further information.