What’s causing your arms or legs to feel numb or tingly?


Numbness or a tingly “pins and needles” feeling in the extremities is not only annoying but extremely common. If numbness and tingling aren’t bad enough, other symptoms may include pain, itching, and even muscle wasting, interfering with daily activities making this a quality of life issue.

Whether these symptoms are occasional and minor or more severe and chronic, it’s important to get medical help to discover the cause, especially if it’s been persistent, even constant. Tingling can be a sign of nerve damage resulting from traumatic injuries or repetitive stress injuries while numbness could be related to systemic diseases such as diabetes. Anything affecting the nervous system is serious and even mild symptoms can be a warning sign of future irreversible damage if not found and treated at an early stage.

4 Common causes of numbness and tingling in arms and legs

There can be numerous reasons for nerve or artery problems resulting in numbness or tingling.  Seeing your healthcare provider should be your first step in determining the cause and how to treat it. Do not wait – it’s important to be assessed at an earlier stage of a medical problem than a later, less treatable stage.

Here’s a look at 4 common reasons that could be the root of your problem:

  1. Peripheral artery disease

Peripheral artery disease or PAD is a type of peripheral vascular disease (PVD) which refers to diseases of blood vessels outside the heart and brain.  PAD is found in one in every 20 Americans over the age of 50 and is a condition that raises the risk for heart attack and stroke. Between 8 to12 million people in the United States have PAD.

PAD is a type of organic disease caused by fatty buildups (atherosclerosis) in the inner walls of arteries.  These deposits end up blocking normal blood flow and a narrowing of the vessels that carry blood to the legs, arms, stomach, or kidneys.  This is just like clogged arteries leading to the heart or brain except that the arteries being clogged are in different areas of the body.

PAD can also cause tingling in the legs or arms, if nerves don’t get enough oxygen to function well.

The goal for treating PAD is to reduce symptoms, improve quality of life and mobility, and to prevent a heart attack, stroke or amputation.  A person who is diagnosed with PAD will need to make lifestyle changes in addition to medications to aid in lowering high blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels.  In some cases, having a special procedure or surgery such as angioplasty and bypass graft can improve blood circulation to the legs and the ability to walk.

  1. Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a condition in which there is a narrowing of the spaces within your spine putting pressure on the nerves that travel through the spine.  Generally, it is noticed most often in the lower back and neck and is often caused by degenerative changes in the spine.  As the spaces in the spinal canal of the lower back narrow, this results in less space for the nerves and blood vessels in this area.

Spinal stenosis occurs mostly in people older than 50.  Younger people with a spine injury or a narrow spinal canal are also at risk.  Disease such as arthritis and scoliosis can also cause spinal stenosis.

Some people may have no symptoms but in others, they may appear gradually causing pain in the neck or back or going down the leg, or numbness, weakness, cramping, or pain in the arms or legs.

The causes of spinal stenosis are usually from wear-and-tear changes in the spine related to osteoarthritis.  In severe cases of spinal stenosis, doctors may recommend surgery to create additional space for the spinal cord or nerves.  Doctors diagnose spinal stenosis with a physical exam and imaging tests.  Treatments include medication, physical therapy, braces, and surgery.

  1. Peripheral neuropathy

More than 20 million Americans suffer from peripheral neuropathy and is the most common complication for individuals with type 2 diabetes. Sufferers experience a feeling of burning, pain, tingling, numbness or a “pins and needles” perception in an arm or leg.  These sensations never go away and are felt on a daily basis.

Peripheral neuropathy is a general term for a series of disorders that result from damage to the body’s peripheral nervous system.  Because of the damage, the nerves connecting the brain and spinal cord to the legs, feet, arms or hands – the extremities – are affected the most.   As a result, nerves transmit signals poorly or activate spontaneously.  Depending on which nerves are damages and how badly, you may experience pain or numbness, a burning or tingling sensation, increased sensitivity to touch, muscle weakness, or other symptoms in the extremities connected to the affected nerves.

There are various methods of treating this condition – over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain relievers in mild cases, prescription medications, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, physical therapy, exercise, and relaxation techniques. It is important to also examine your feet and hands daily looking for any skin changes, blisters, or other changes to prevent a serious infection or amputation.

  1. Sciatica

This common condition experienced by millions of people knows all too well how painful sciatica can be.  The annoying pins and needles feeling or excruciating shooting pain originating in the buttocks and radiating down the leg(s) results from pressure on the nerve roots coming from the spinal cord.  A nerve called the sciatic nerve runs from the lower back, through the buttocks and down the back of each leg and is the largest nerve in the body.  It begins from nerve roots in the lumbar spinal cord in the lower back and the resulting sciatica is also sometimes referred to as sciatic nerve pain.

A few possible causes of sciatica may include spinal stenosis, a herniated disc, or spondylolisthesis.

Treatment for sciatica often includes time to heal and in about 75 percent of people symptoms generally go away within about one to three months.  Because of the shooting, burning pain, the main form of treatment is to control the discomfort during this time of healing.  Either nonprescription or if needed, prescription pain relievers are a first choice to bring comfort.  Other treatments can include modified activity, working with a physical therapist, or massage therapy.

If a person is failing to find relief from sciatic symptoms and the pain is ongoing, then other options might include injections or surgery.  Inflammation-reducing corticosteroid injections into the area of the nerve root are effective with pain relief usually lasting for a few months, but there is a limit on the number of injections a person can have.

What’s causing your arms or legs to feel numb or tingly?
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Dr. David Samadi

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Dr. David Samadi