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What is toe numbness?
Toe numbness is a symptom that occurs when the sensation in your toes is affected. You may experience the absence of feeling, a tingling, or even a burning sensation. This can make walking difficult or even painful.
Toe numbness can be a temporary symptom, or it can be a chronic symptom — that is, long term. Chronic toe numbness can affect your ability to walk and possibly lead to injuries and wounds you may be unaware of. While toe numbness can be a cause of concern, it’s rarely considered a medical emergency.
Toe numbness is an abnormal sensation that often reduces your ability to feel your toes themselves or the ground underneath you. You may also feel tingling up your legs or in your toes as sensation returns and the numbness goes away.
Numbness can also cause a pins-and-needles feeling in your toes. This can occur in only one foot or in both feet, depending upon its cause.
Your body contains a complex network of sensory nerves that provide your sense of touch. When nerves are pressed, damaged, or irritated, it’s as if a telephone line has been cut and the messages can’t get through. The result is numbness, whether temporary or long-lasting.
A number of medical conditions can cause toe numbness, including:
- alcoholism or chronic alcohol abuse
- Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease
- diabetes and diabetic neuropathy
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
- herniated disk
- multiple sclerosis (MS)
- nerve compression syndromes, such as Morton’s neuroma (affecting the ball of the foot) or tarsal tunnel syndrome (affecting the tibial nerve)
- peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
- peripheral vascular disease (PVD)
- Raynaud’s disease
- spinal cord injury
- vasculitis, or inflammation of the blood vessels
Some people experience exercise-associated toe numbness, especially after engaging in high-impact exercises such as running or playing a sport. This is because the nerves are frequently compressed while exercising. The numbness should subside fairly quickly after you stop exercising.
Less commonly, numbness in toes can be a sign of a more serious neurological event. This is the case when you experience sudden numbness on one side of the body. This can be caused by:
Seek immediate medical attention if you experience toe numbness along with any of these symptoms:
- difficulty seeing out of one or both eyes
- facial drooping
- inability to think or speak clearly
- loss of balance
- muscle weakness
- toe numbness that occurs after recent head trauma
- sudden loss of sensation or numbness on one side of your body
- sudden, severe headache
- tremors, jerking, or twitching movements
If your toe numbness isn’t accompanied by other symptoms, see your doctor when it becomes uncomfortable or doesn’t go away as it once did. You should also seek medical help if toe numbness starts to worsen.
Your doctor will first take an inventory of your medical history and symptoms before conducting a physical examination. If you’re experiencing stroke- or seizure-like symptoms, the doctor may recommend a CT or MRI scan. These can detect bleeding in the brain that could indicate a stroke.
MRI and CT scans are also used to detect abnormalities in the spine that could indicate sciatica or spinal stenosis.
Your doctor will perform a comprehensive foot exam if your symptoms seem to be concentrated in the feet themselves. This includes testing your abilities to sense temperature and other sensations in the feet.
Other tests include nerve conduction studies, which can detect how well electric current is transmitted through the nerves. Electromyography is another test that determines how muscles respond to electrical stimulation.
Treatments for toe numbness depend upon its underlying cause.
If diabetic neuropathy is the cause, your doctor will recommend medications and treatments to ensure your blood sugar stays at appropriate levels. Increasing your physical activity and paying careful attention to your diet can also help.
If the numbness is due to compression of the nerve in the foot, changing the type of shoes you wear might help. If the numbness is related to alcohol, you should stop drinking and begin taking a multivitamin.
In addition to these steps, a doctor may prescribe pain-relieving medications. These can include:
- antidepressants and anticonvulsants to treat diabetic nerve pain, including duloxetine (Cymbalta) and pregabalin (Lyrica)
- opioids or opioidlike medications, such as oxycodone (Oxycontin) or tramadol (Ultram)
- tricyclic antidepressants, including amitriptyline
Treating chronic foot numbness
People with chronic foot numbness should undergo routine foot examinations to check for wounds and foot circulation. They should also practice excellent foot hygiene, including:
- cutting toenails straight across or getting toenails cut at a podiatrist’s office
- inspecting the feet daily for cuts or wounds using a handheld mirror to check the bottom of the feet
- wearing soft, thick socks that support and cushion the feet
- wearing well-fitting shoes that allow the toes to move