Numbness and tingling in your hands and feet can be a temporary symptom such as when you sit on your foot and it "goes to sleep" or a persistent and severe sign of a more chronic disease or injury. More severe injuries may indicate that nerve damage (also called peripheral neuropathy) has occurred. Peripheral neuropathy can be a progressive problem that can result in permanent impairment. What causes numbness in the hands and feet? What treatments are available? And how do you know when you should get in to see your doctor?
Causes of Numbness in Hands and Feet
- Diabetes. Diabetic peripheral neuropathy is one of the most common causes of numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. Typically, this neuropathy starts in the feet and may be one of the first symptoms that an adult has developed diabetes. Almost one-third of all peripheral neuropathies are caused by diabetes.
- Nerve Entrapment Syndromes. Numbness in the hands and feet can be caused when a nerve becomes pinched or trapped such as with carpal tunnel syndrome or ulnar or radial nerve palsy. These syndromes are usually caused by repetitive actions (typing, playing a piano, carrying a heavy shoulder bag, etc.) over time. Depending on the nerve that is trapped, symptoms may start with numbness, but can quickly progress to burning or stabbing pain. In rare instances, nerve entrapment can lead to paralysis of the affected extremity.
- Systemic Diseases. Diseases of the kidney, liver, connective tissues, cardiovascular system and tumors can cause numbness in hands and feet. For example, left-sided arm numbness can occur in angina and myocardial infarction because of inadequate oxygen supply to the heart. In this case, numbness can be a symptom of a life-threatening illness.
- Vitamin Deficiencies. Deficiencies of the B vitamins and vitamin E can lead to peripheral neuropathy. All of these vitamins are critical to maintain healthy nerves, so a deficiency may show up as numbness in the hands or feet.
- Alcoholism. The peripheral neuropathy common in alcoholics is usually related to the vitamin and thiamine deficiencies due to poor diets. Alcoholics can also develop nerve damage from chronic alcohol use, often referred to as alcoholic neuropathy.
- Toxins. Heavy metals (for example, mercury, lead and arsenic) and other chemicals may cause peripheral neuropathies. This can also include those chemicals in the form of medications that are used to treat cancer and viruses.
- Infections. Neurological infections such as shingles, Epstein-Barr virus, herpes, Lyme disease, and HIV/AIDS can lead to peripheral neuropathy causing numbness in hands and feet.
- Autoimmune Diseases. Autoimmune diseases in which the body starts attacking itself can also cause neuropathies. Common diseases in this category include Guillain-Barr¨¦ syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.
- Inherited Disorders. Charcot-Marie-Tooth neuropathy is a group of incurable inherited disorders that may result in peripheral neuropathy and loss of sensation in the hands and feet.
- Injury. Nerve damage leading to numbness is often caused by trauma or some other mechanism of injury. Bone fractures or dislocations are common causes of nerve compressions that can result in numbness of hands and feet.
- Anxiety. Anxiety can result in an increased respiratory rate which can result in increased oxygen to the hands and feet. This increased oxygen can result in carpal-pedal spasms and numbness of the hands or feet. Breathe slowly into a paper bag for a few minutes to relieve these symptoms.
- Migraines. Many people with migraines may experience numbness in the hands and feet when a migraine is beginning. This sign may help the sufferer identify when the migraine is beginning - and may allow you time to intervene early in the headache.
- Stroke and TIA. A stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA or "mini-stroke") may cause numbness usually on only one side of the body. Symptoms of the TIA usually go away within a few hours whereas symptoms of a stroke may never resolve. Any facial or one-sided numbness without a known cause should be evaluated immediately.
- Multiple Sclerosis. Progressive nervous disorders such as multiple sclerosis (MS) cause numbness because the myelin sheath of the nerve is disrupted. Nerve impulses cannot be sent over the damaged nerve so the person with MS will often complain about numbness and tingling in hands and feet.
Treatments for Numbness in Hands and Feet
Medical treatment for numbness in hands and feet will depend on what is causing the symptom. The most critical part of medical treatment is obtaining your medical history and a history of the symptoms. You can help your healthcare provider by being honest about your use of alcohol, recreational drugs, and other medications. Your provider will also ask about your work - looking for chemical exposures or repetitive stress injuries. You will also be asked about any family history of neurological problems or diseases. If you have traveled outside of the country, be sure your healthcare provider is aware. Be prepared for blood and other lab tests and x-rays.
Your actual medical treatment will depend on the diagnosis. Medical treatment can range from rest to medication to surgery. A treatment plan should be discussed and developed with you.
There are a few home remedies you can try to treat numbness in your hands and feet.
- Stretch and Massage. Stretching and massaging your hands or feet to increase the flow of blood to the area and to decompress the nerve if possible. This works particularly well if you do it as soon as you begin to feel the numbness begin. If you are sitting and typing, get up and move around.
- Apply Hot Compress. A warm compress may help increase the blood supply to the numb area. If the numbness begins to get worse, remove the hot pack and apply a cool compress to reduce swelling.
- Provide the Needed Vitamins. The water soluble B vitamins and Vitamin E can help prevent the numbness caused by vitamin deficiencies. Get plenty of fish, leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds in your diet. You might consider over-the-counter vitamin supplements.
When to See a Doctor
There are times when the numbness or tingling in your hands or feet should prompt a visit to the doctor. See your doctor immediately if:
- You have weakness or paralysis on one side of your body with no apparent cause.
- Your speech becomes slurred.
- You have a sudden change in vision.
- The numbness follows a back or neck injury particularly with loss of consciousness.
- You lose control of your bowels or bladder.
- The numbness does not resolve within a few minutes or gets worse when you walk.
- You develop a rash, dizziness or spasms.