Leg Numbness

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What is leg numbness?

Leg numbness is an abnormal condition in which you feel a loss of sensation in the legs. You can have numbness of one (unilateral) or both (bilateral leg numbness) legs. Numbness in the legs may also extend to your toes.

Leg numbness is usually due to a lack of blood supply to an area or nerve damage. Leg numbness can also result from infection, inflammation, trauma, and other abnormal processes. Most cases of leg numbness are not due to life-threatening disorders, but it does occur with stroke and tumors.

Leg numbness is often associated with or preceded by pain-like pins-and-needles, prickling, or burning sensations called paresthesias. Whereas leg numbness is a loss of sensation, paralysis involves a loss of movement, with or without the loss of sensation in the area.

Depending on the cause, the loss of sensation can disappear quickly, such as numbness in the buttocks and legs after sitting with your legs crossed for a long time. Numbness can occur suddenly or progress slowly. Chronic leg numbness generally indicates some level of damage to the nerves. Leg numbness may also be worse at night, which is common for paresthesias in general.

Because leg numbness or numbness in general may be a symptom of an underlying disease, disorder or condition, you should talk with your medical professional about any unusual sensations or leg numbness that last more than a few minutes.

If you experience leg numbness with loss of bladder or bowel control, paralysis, confusion, weakness in the leg, or slurred speech, seek immediate medical attention in an emergency facility. If your leg numbness is persistent, recurrent, or causes you concern, contact a medical professional.

What other symptoms might occur with leg numbness?

Leg numbness may occur with other symptoms or a combination of symptoms. For example, if your legs are numb because of a compressed nerve in the lumbar spine (lower back), you may also experience pain in the legs and back. Leg numbness due to multiple sclerosis can be associated with tingling and extreme itchiness. Any symptoms occurring with leg numbness can help your doctor make a diagnosis.

Symptoms that may occur along with leg numbness

Leg numbness may occur with other symptoms including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, leg numbness may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Get immediate help if you, or someone you are with, are exhibiting any of these life-threatening symptoms:

  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Difficulty walking

  • Dizziness

  • Leg numbness following a back injury

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

  • Loss of vision or changes in vision

  • Paralysis

  • Slurred speech

  • Sudden numbness

  • Weakness (loss of strength)

What causes leg numbness?

Leg numbness can be a symptom of a wide variety of diseases, disorders or conditions that either restrict blood flow or cause injury to the nerves.

Temporary leg numbness can occur after prolonged pressure on a nerve or nerves, such as after sitting cross legged or bicycling long distance.

Leg numbness can occur with moderate to serious orthopedic conditions that can lead to spinal or peripheral nerve damage. More serious conditions include multiple sclerosis.

Whether the numbness occurs in one or both legs can help your doctor diagnose the underlying cause. For example, numbness in one leg can indicate a compressed nerve in the lower spine, whereas numbness in both legs (and other extremities) may be a sign of a more systemic disease (in which multiple body parts are affected) such as multiple sclerosis or pernicious anemia.

In some cases, leg numbness can be a sign of a serious or life-threatening disease or condition that should be evaluated as soon as possible or in an emergency medical setting.

Circulatory causes of leg numbness

Leg numbness can be caused by lack of blood flow to an area due to such conditions as:

  • Arteriovenous malformation (tangled knot of arteries and veins)

  • Buerger’s disease (acute inflammation and clotting of arteries and veins)

  • Deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in the leg that can break loose from the leg causing a pulmonary embolism in the lung, a heart attack, or even stroke)

  • Frostbite or extremely cold temperatures

  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD, also called peripheral vascular disease, or PVD, which is a narrowing of arteries due to a buildup of fat and cholesterol on the artery walls, which limits blood flow to the extremities)

Orthopedic causes of leg numbness

Leg numbness may also occur because of moderate to serious orthopedic conditions that injure of damage the nerves including:

  • Back injury

  • Bone fractures or a cast that is too tight

  • Degenerative disk disease

  • Herniated disk

  • Nerve entrapment or nerve pressure, such as from sitting too long

  • Osteoporosis

Neurological causes of leg numbness

Leg numbness caused by nerve compression or damage may be due to such conditions as:

What are the potential complications of leg numbness?

Because leg numbness can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in complications and permanent damage. It is important to contact your health care provider when you experience any kind of persistent numbness or other unusual symptoms. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important to follow the treatment plan outlined by your health care provider to reduce your risk of potential complications related to leg numbness, such as:

  • Amputation

  • Disability

  • Inability to walk

  • Organ failure

  • Paralysis

  • Permanent loss of sensation

  • Permanent pain

  • Poor quality of life

References:

  1. Numbness and tingling. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003206.htm.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 3
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Numbness and tingling as a sign of multiple sclerosis, About.com http://ms.about.com/od/signssymptoms/a/numbness.htm
  2. Leg numbness and tingling, MedLine Plus encyclopedia http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003206.htm