We all know the feeling when our feet or legs fall asleep when we get up after sitting in one position for a long time. Usually, we feel this sort of numbness in our feet and legs from sitting in a position that exerts too much of pressure on the nerves, or it reduces the blood flow to the legs and feet. However, if you begin to experience this sensation regularly or with increased intensity, it could be a sign that there is another serious underlying condition. There are many reasons why people may feel tingling, numbness, or even a burning sensation in their feet and legs. Read on to find out more about what causes numbness in the legs and feet.
Causes of Numbness in Legs and Feet
There are plenty of reasons why you may feel tingling, numbness, or sometimes even a burning sensation in your legs and feet. (1,2,3,4) There are some common medical conditions that cause this symptom, including fibromyalgia, diabetes, nerve disorders, and multiple sclerosis. Some other conditions that may also cause numbness or tingling in the legs and feet include:
- Pressure on the nerves or spinal injuries
- Diabetic neuropathy
- Tarsal tunnel syndrome
- Peripheral artery disease
- Transient ischemic attack or stroke
Let us look at some of these conditions closely to understand why they cause numbness in the legs and feet.
Pressure on the Nerves or Spinal Injuries
When there is too much pressure being applied on your nerves due to an injury or overuse, it can cause numbness or a pins-and-needles sensation on the legs and feet. There are a variety of causes that can put extra pressure on the nerves. (5) Some of these include:
- Spasming or tensed muscles
- Foot or ankle injuries
- Wearing shoes that are too tight
- Herniated or slipped discs
- Sitting on your foot for too long
- Other back problems that lead to a trapped nerve
In many cases, the underlying medical cause of this excess pressure on the nerves can be treatable. It is not necessary that nerve damage will be permanent. (6)
2. Diabetes or Diabetic Neuropathy
Diabetic neuropathies refer to a group of nerve disorders that are caused by damage from diabetes. Diabetic neuropathies can affect any part of the body, including the feet and legs. (7,8) According to estimates by the American Diabetes Association (ADA), nearly half of all people who have diabetes are prone to experiencing some type of nerve damage or neuropathy. (9)
Tingling or numbness in the feet is actually one of the first common symptoms for many people who experience nerve damage or neuropathy from diabetes. This is known as peripheral neuropathy, which usually tends to worsen at night. (10)
Some of the other symptoms of this type of peripheral neuropathy caused by diabetes include:
- Loss of balance
- Extreme sensitivity to touch
- Sharp cramps or pain, especially in the feet
Over a period of time, ulcers and blisters may also develop on the foot because injuries can go unnoticed due to the numbness. These can further lead to infections. Combined with poor blood circulation due to diabetic neuropathy, it can even lead to amputations. (11,12)
3. Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disorder that affects the central nervous system and causes damage to the covering of the nerve, known as the myelin sheath. Multiple sclerosis is a chronic condition that progresses over a period of time. Although this condition tends to gradually worsen for most people, they are also likely to experience periods of flare-ups and remissions from the symptoms. (13,14,15)
Numbness and tingling are common signs of multiple sclerosis. In fact, it is typically one of the first symptoms that cause people to visit their doctors to get a diagnosis. These sensations can range from being mild to severe enough to start causing trouble in standing or walking. In multiple sclerosis patients, the symptoms of numbness and tingling tend to go into remission without needing any treatment.
Some of the other symptoms of multiple sclerosis may include:
Fibromyalgia is another common cause of numbness or tingling in the feet and legs. (16,17,18) People with fibromyalgia are also likely to feel numbness and tingling in their hands and arms. This is known as paresthesia. (19)
Fibromyalgia also causes a variety of other symptoms like exhaustion difficulty sleeping. Widespread muscle pain, mood swings, and memory problems.
Doctors believe that fibromyalgia is caused by the amplification of pain signals in the brain. It is often common for the symptoms of this condition to begin after any major stressful or traumatic events in one’s life. This may include:
- Physical or psychological trauma
The exact origins of why paresthesia is caused in fibromyalgia patients remain unclear. However, a review in 2020 found that the condition impacts two to three percent of the population in the world, with women being more likely to have it than men. (20)
There are some possible theories on how the symptoms develop with fibromyalgia. This involves muscle spasms and muscle stiffness caused by excess pressure on the nerves. Sometimes, these muscle spasms can also be caused by cold temperatures, a condition known as induced vasospasm. This forces the blood vessels to get closed, thus blocking the flow of blood. This is what creates the numbness. (21)
The tingling and numbness that is associated with fibromyalgia tend to come and go without any explanation.
5. Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome
Tarsal tunnel syndrome is a condition that causes compression of the posterior tibial nerve. (22,23) This nerve is located along the inner part of the hell, and this compression can cause symptoms that spread all the way from the foot to the ankle. This can include numbness and tingling anywhere in the foot. It is commonly said that tarsal tunnel is the foot’s version of carpal tunnel, which commonly affects the wrist.
Some of the other symptoms of tarsal tunnel syndrome include:
- Burning sensation
- Sudden or shooting pain
- Feeling a sensation similar to getting an electric shock
People with tarsal tunnel tend to commonly feel the symptoms on the inner side of their ankle or along the bottom of their foot. These symptoms may come and go suddenly and are sporadic in nature. It is important to seek early treatment for tarsal tunnel in order to prevent any type of permanent nerve damage.
6. Peripheral Artery Disease
Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a condition that causes plaque called atherosclerosis to build up in the arteries. (24,25) As time progresses, this plaque starts to harden and causes narrowing of the arteries, thus restricting the blood supply and oxygen flow to all the parts of the body.
Peripheral artery disease can also affect your legs, which causes numbness in both the legs and feet. The condition also increases the risk of infection in the legs and feet. If you have severe peripheral artery disease, it could also lead to gangrene or lead to amputation. (26)
Since peripheral artery disease increases the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and heart attacks, it is important to consult your doctor immediately if you experience any of these symptoms:
- Coldness in your foot or lower leg
- Pain in the legs while walking or climbing stairs
- Hair loss
- Slower hair growth on the legs or feet
- Sores on your toes, legs, or feet that don’t heal
- Changes in the color of your legs
- Development of shiny skin on your legs
- Slow growing or loss of toenails
- Weak or no pulse in your legs
If you are a regular smoker or you have other underlying health conditions like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or heart disease, you are at a higher risk of developing peripheral artery disease.
Treatment of Numbness in Legs and Feet
In many cases of numbness and tingling in the feet and legs, treatment of the underlying cause can relieve this symptom. For example, if you are experiencing numbness in your legs and feet due to diabetes and diabetic neuropathy, managing your blood sugar levels and keeping them under control is the first step to avoid further damage and managing the numbness.
If you experience recurring numbness in the legs and feet, you should discuss this with your doctor and find out the possible causes and treatments. Taking care of chronic health issues can take time, and in the meantime, your doctor will offer you certain treatments that will help alleviate the discomfort from the numbness and tingling in your legs and feet while the treatment for the underlying condition continues.
There are several medications that help relieve the discomfort caused by various neuropathies. Many of these drugs are used in the treatment of other health conditions like seizures and depression. These include:
- carbamazepine (brand name: Tegretol)
- duloxetine (brand name: Cymbalta)
- gabapentin (brand name: Neurontin)
- lamotrigine (brand name: Lamictal)
- nortriptyline (brand name: Pamelor)
- oxcarbazepine (brand name: Trileptal)
- pregabalin (brand name: Lyrica)
- topiramate (brand name: Topamax)
There are many topical and oral pain-relieving medications like pain creams and acetaminophen that help alleviate the pain and discomfort associated with numbness and tingling of the feet and legs.
There are various alternative therapies as well that can help deal with the numbness and tingling of your legs and feet. However, these therapies work depending on the exact cause of your symptoms. Some of these therapies can include:
There are also some natural home remedies that can provide you with some temporary relief from numbness and tingling. These include:
- Staying off your feet and taking sufficient rest to ensure no further damage is caused.
- Icing the affected area to reduce both pain and numbness works well in conditions like tarsal tunnel syndrome or injuries. However, don’t use an ice pack for more than 20 minutes at one go.
- For some cases, applying a heat compress to the area that is numb can help boost blood flow and relax the muscles.
- Using braces can help relieve the pressure and any pain and numbness caused by the excess pressure on the nerves. Orthotic devices can also help.
- Massaging your feet can help boost blood circulation, stimulating the nerves and improving their function.
- Soaking your feet in Epsom salt may also help relieve the symptoms. This is because Epsom salt is rich in magnesium, which helps increase blood circulation.
There are many conditions that can cause numbness and tingling in the feet and legs. However, most of these conditions require long-term treatment and lifestyle changes to treat. If you are experiencing severe to persistent numbness or tingling in your legs and feet, you should talk with your doctor. Your doctor will help determine the underlying cause and come up with a treatment plan to help you deal with the symptoms.
- Grant Cooper, M., 2022. Leg Pain and Numbness: What Might These Symptoms Mean?. [online] Spine-health. Available at: <https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/leg-pain/leg-pain-and-numbness-what-might-these-symptoms-mean> [Accessed 21 February 2022].
- Neuropathy, P. and Health, N., 2022. Peripheral Neuropathy | NIDDK. [online] National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Available at: <https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/nerve-damage-diabetic-neuropathies/peripheral-neuropathy> [Accessed 21 February 2022].
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