What does numbness of limbs mean?
Numbness is a symptom in which a person loses feeling in a particular part of their body. Sensations may be focused on one body part, or you may feel tingly all over, as if you’re being pricked with many small needles.
Numbness in the arms or legs is a common symptom associated with several different conditions that range from neurological damage to sensory-related conditions. In some instances, numbness may even indicate a medical emergency, such as a stroke.
In order to determine the exact cause of a person’s numbness, doctors often use a comprehensive neurological workup.
Numbness of limbs can cause various feelings in different parts of the arms and legs or throughout the limbs. It can include the following:
- a burning sensation
- loss of sensitivity
- pain due to contact with usually non-harmful stimuli
- unusual sensations, including tingling
Numbness can have many different characteristics, including what makes the sensation worse, how the numbness starts and progresses, and where exactly the feeling of numbness is located.
Numbness is most commonly associated with some type of nerve damage, irritation, or compression.
When numbness occurs without other symptoms, it doesn’t typically represent a medical emergency. However, numbness can be a symptom of a serious condition if it occurs alongside symptoms such as:
- numbness on one side
- facial drooping
- difficulty speaking
- confused thinking
In such cases, a stroke may be the cause. This is a medical emergency that requires prompt medical attention to prevent loss of significant brain tissue.
Numbness of limbs may also be serious if it occurs with symptoms such as:
- pounding headache
- loss of consciousness
- shortness of breath
This may indicate the presence of a brain tumor, which also requires urgent medical attention.
Numerous medical conditions have numbness of limbs as a possible symptom. These include, but aren’t limited to:
- alcohol misuse disorder
- bone compression because of osteoarthritis (OA)
- compressive neuropathies, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
- herniated disk
- Lyme disease
- multiple sclerosis (MS)
- peripheral nerve compression
- peripheral neuropathy
- thyroid diseases
- vitamin B-12 deficiency
Women in their third trimester of pregnancy can also commonly experience tingling and numbness in the limbs due to body swelling that puts pressure on nerves.
Seek immediate emergency medical treatment if you experience the following symptoms related to, or in addition to, numbness:
- numbness of an entire arm or leg
- numbness after a recent head injury
- sudden headache
- sudden onset of numbness
- trouble speaking
- chest pain
- difficulty breathing
- weakness or paralysis
You should make an appointment to see a doctor if your symptoms do the following:
Because limb numbness can be due to many factors, doctors often use a comprehensive workup to determine its cause. This includes:
Taking a medical history
A doctor will ask about previous health conditions as well as when the numbness started. Examples of questions a doctor may ask are “How long have your limbs felt numb?” and “Have you recently experienced any injuries or falls?”
Conducting a physical examination
A doctor will examine you and test for neurological function. This includes testing your reflexes, muscle strength, and sensory functions. A doctor may test to see if you can feel various sensations, such as a pinprick or light touch on both sides of the body.
Of special interest is where and to what extent someone is experiencing numbness of limbs. For example, numbness on both sides of the body can indicate a brain lesion. Numbness in only part of a limb can indicate peripheral nerve damage.
Performing clinical testing
Further imaging and blood tests may be needed to make a diagnosis. These include MRI or CT scans to better visualize the brain to check for stroke or tumor. Blood tests a doctor may order include:
Treatments for numbness of limbs depend on the cause identified by your doctor.
If the numbness is in a person’s feet and affects their ability to walk, wearing socks and shoes that fit well, even when at home, can help prevent further injury and damage to the feet.
People with numbness in their feet may also require gait training. This physical therapy rehab method will help them practice walking with numbness.
Those who experience numbness in the fingers and hands should also take precautions to prevent burns. This includes avoiding fires, hot water, and other sources of heat. Numbness can affect your ability to sense hot items.