Feeling numb in your legs, arms, feet or hands is common, especially if you’ve been sitting or sleeping awkwardly. But if you experience numbness over a long period with no obvious cause, you should see a doctor. It could be a sign of illness.
What is limb numbness?
Numbness, sometimes called ‘paresthesia’, means you lose some or all sensation in the affected part of your body. You won’t feel a light touch, pain or temperature. Numbness is due to a problem with your nerves that causes something to go wrong with the signals the nerves send to your brain.
You can experience numbness anywhere in your body, but it’s most commonly felt in the fingers, hands, feet, arms, or legs. You might also feel a tingling, prickling, or ‘pins and needles’.
Having a numb limb can lead to other problems, such as falling or not noticing an injury, infection or sore.
What causes limb numbness?
There are many causes of limb numbness. Usually it’s just because you’ve been sitting on one of your legs or sleeping on an arm and this has compressed the nerves that go to the area.
Many, more serious conditions can also make your limbs go numb. These include:
- an injury, such as a herniated disc, compressing or injuring a nerve (if it's in your neck it will affect your arm, if it's in your back it will affect your leg)
- stroke or a mini-stroke
- multiple sclerosis
- carpal tunnel syndrome
- an insect bite
- abnormal levels of some vitamins and minerals in your body, such as vitamin B-12, potassium, calcium or sodium
- pressure being put on a nerve, such as because of a tumour, scar tissue, enlarged blood vessels or an infection
- Raynaud's phenomenon
- hardening of the arteries
- an underactive thyroid
- damage to the skin, such as from frostbite or shingles
Nerve damage can also be caused by some medicines, including chemotherapy medicines, as well as by too much alcohol or tobacco.
Limb numbness treatment
Your doctor will order tests to find out the cause of your numbness. Make sure you tell them if you have had any recent injuries, illnesses or infections.
The treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the numbness. Long-term nerve problems can sometimes be treated with medicines including antidepressants, corticosteroids or gabapentin and pregabalin (if you have fibromyalgia, MS or diabetic neuropathy).
Limb numbness self-help and prevention
You can massage the affected limb to help improve blood flow. Sometimes putting an ice pack or heat pack on the area for 15 minutes can help – but be very careful not to damage the skin. If the area is numb you won’t notice if it’s getting too hot or cold.
Exercise frequently to improve your blood flow and fitness. Make sure you get plenty of rest. Eat a healthy diet and avoid too much alcohol.
Some alternative therapies, such as massage or acupuncture, might also help. If your numbness is caused by a vitamin deficiency, your doctor may advise you to take supplements.
When to seek help for limb numbness
Seek emergency medical help by calling triple zero (000) for an ambulance if your limb is numb and you also suddenly have:
See your doctor if your limb is numb for a long time, if it's not caused by your posture, and if you have any other symptoms, including:
- muscle spasms
- a rash
- your leg numbness is worse when you walk
- you're urinating more often than usual
- you have had a recent injury, especially to your back, neck or head
- you're confused
- your speech is slurred
- you can't see properly
- you feel weak
- you're in pain
- you can't control your bowels or bladder
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Last reviewed: June 2018