To experience occasional numbness and tingling in the extremities is to be human. We’ve all felt those uncanny pins and needles before. Such sensations are normal, even welcome, from time to time. They often have pedestrian environmental causes that indicate nothing about our underlying health. More likely than not, transient numbness in the extremities is benign and, if it can be explained at all, not worth anything approaching the worry it typically engenders.
Then again, numbness in the hands isn’t always completely benign. Sometimes, it’s right to be curious about the root causes of unexplained loss or change in sensation — and, if circumstances dictate, even worried.
How can we tell the difference? In many cases, we can’t — at least, not without thorough examination by a medical expert. If you believe the numbness in your hands or other extremities is caused by an acute or emergent condition, consult a physician or visit a care facility at your earliest convenience. Otherwise, familiarize yourself with these five common causes of numbness in the extremities. If you believe your symptoms are caused by one or more of these conditions, schedule an appointment with your care provider.
- Peripheral Neuropathy
Peripheral neuropathy is the result of damage to the nerves in the hands and feet. One of the signature symptoms of peripheral neuropathy is tingling in the extremities; numbness is a common manifestation as well. These and other peripheral neuropathy symptoms can be treated, but reversing the progression of the condition typically isn’t possible.
Peripheral neuropathy has a number of causes, many related to chronic conditions. In some cases, the aftereffects of traumatic injuries, such as car accidents and falls, can lead to peripheral neuropathy. So can infections that affect the nervous system, including those acquired during surgery, and exposure to certain toxins that damage the nervous system.
- Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. Multiple sclerosis patients’ immune systems attack the myelin sheaths that surround their nerves, causing irreversible damage. Eventually, the immune system also attacks the nerves themselves. The process causes scar tissue to form in nerves’ myelin, with a host of unpredictable effects for sufferers’ sensation and mobility.
Tingling and numbness in the extremities are just two of the many symptoms of multiple sclerosis. For patients with advanced multiple sclerosis, these symptoms are largely seen as secondary to more debilitating effects, such as loss of motor control and mobility.
- Diabetes (Type 1 and 2)
Diabetes is a frustratingly common cause of tingling and numbness in the extremities. These symptoms can present in both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes; gestational diabetes doesn’t typically progress to this point before the condition resolves itself after childbirth. Over time, high blood sugar levels damage body tissues and nerves, resulting in changes in extremity sensation. It’s important to note that numbness and tingling in the extremities are often accompanied by outright pain, particularly in the feet of longtime diabetes sufferers.
Arthritis affects millions of Americans and causes untold pain and suffering. Its most common symptoms include pain, stiffness, swelling and loss of range of motion, particularly around the joints. Arthritis can be caused by cartilage loss due to age or injury, or by an autoimmune process (known as rheumatoid arthritis). All types of arthritis can cause numbness and tingling in the extremities, though it’s rare for these to be the only symptoms associated with the disease. While it’s possible to treat numbness, tingling and other arthritis symptoms (including joint pain), the condition’s progression is more difficult to halt.
- Cold-Weather Injuries
Not all presentations of hand numbness and tingling result from chronic conditions. Sometimes, these symptoms occur due to environmental stresses and injuries.
Cold weather is a common cause of tingling in the extremities. For starters, hands and feet bundled tightly in sturdy boots, socks and gloves tend not to move with the same freedom as unencumbered extremities. Persistent tingling and numbness may result. Left untreated, such sensations — which aren’t directly related to cold itself — can become uncomfortable or even painful.
Cold weather can also directly cause tingling and numbness in the extremities. As fingers and toes get colder, blood flow through their capillaries decreases, starving their nerves of oxygen. Left untreated, these symptoms can progress on a dangerous course, leading to frostbite and tissue necrosis.