What is paresthesia?
Paresthesia is an abnormal sensory condition in which you feel a sensation of burning, numbness, tingling, itching or prickling. Paresthesia can also be described as a pins-and-needles or skin-crawling sensation. Paresthesia most often occurs in the extremities, such as the hands, feet, fingers, and toes, but it can occur in other parts of the body.
Temporary numbness or tingling that disappears quickly can occur from sitting with your legs crossed for a long time or sleeping on your arm in a bent position. Most people have felt this type of sensation.
Chronic paresthesia or intermittent paresthesia over a long period of time is generally a sign of a neurological disease or traumatic nerve damage. Paresthesia usually arises from nerve damage due to infection, inflammation, trauma, or other abnormal process. Paresthesia is rarely due to life-threatening disorders, but it does occur as a result of stroke and tumors. Whereas paresthesia is a loss of sensation, paralysis usually involves both a loss of movement and the loss of sensations.
Because paresthesia can be a symptom of a disease, disorder or condition, you should talk with your medical professional about any unusual sensations that last more than a few minutes.
If you experience paresthetic sensations with loss of bladder or bowel control, paralysis, confusion, weakness in the extremities, or slurred speech, seek immediate medical attention (call 911) in an emergency facility.
What other symptoms might occur with paresthesia?
Paresthesia sensations can be described in many ways, including tingling, numbness, pins and needles, itching, and burning. Paresthetic sensations may be accompanied by pain and other symptoms depending on the part of the body that is affected. Any associated symptoms can help your doctor make a diagnosis.
Symptoms that may occur along with paresthesia
Paresthesia may occur with other symptoms including:
- Increased paresthesia while walking or performing a task
- Sensitivity to touch
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, paresthesia may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Call 911 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
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Loss of vision or changes in vision
- Paresthesia following a head, neck, or back injury
What causes paresthesia?
Paresthesia usually arises from nerve compression (pressure or entrapment) or damage. Paresthesia can be a symptom of a wide variety of diseases, disorders or conditions that cause injury to the nerves.
Temporary paresthesia can be due to any activity that causes prolonged pressure on a nerve or nerves, such as sitting cross-legged or bicycling long distance. Paresthesia can also occur with moderate to severe orthopedic conditions, as well as disorders and diseases that damage the nervous system. In some cases, paresthesia is a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated as soon as possible in an emergency setting.
Orthopedic causes of paresthesia
Paresthesia may also occur from moderate to serious orthopedic conditions that injure or damage the nerves, including:
- Back or neck injury
- Bone fractures or a cast that is too tight
- Degenerative disk disease
- Herniated disk
- Nerve entrapment or nerve pressure, such as from carpal tunnel syndrome
Neurological causes of paresthesia
Paresthesia can be the result of a variety of disorders and diseases that damage the nerves, including:
- Arteriovenous malformation (tangled knot of arteries and veins that presses against the spinal cord)
- Diabetic neuropathy (nerve or blood vessel damage due to high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes)
- Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain due to a viral or bacterial infection)
- Heavy metal poisoning, such as lead poisoning
- Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord)
- Peripheral neuropathy (disorder of the peripheral nerves from your spinal cord)
- Shingles (Varicella zoster) can cause chronic pain or numbness long after the skin rash has resolved
- Spinal cord injury or tumor
- Transient ischemic attack (temporary stroke-like symptoms that may be a warning sign of an impending stroke)
- Transverse myelitis (neurological disorder causing inflammation of the spinal cord)
Questions asked in diagnosing the cause of paresthesia
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed healthcare practitioner will ask you several questions related to the abnormal sensations you are experiencing. Questions include:
- What is the exact location of the abnormal sensation?
- When did the sensation begin?
- How long does it last?
What are the potential complications of paresthesia?
Because paresthesia can be due to a nervous system disease or nerve damage, failure to seek treatment can result in complications and permanent damage. It is important to visit your healthcare provider when you experience any kind of paresthesia or other abnormal feelings. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important to follow the treatment plan outlined by your healthcare provider to reduce your risk of potential complications including:
- Inability to breathe on your own
- Permanent loss of sensation
- Permanent pain
- Poor quality of life
What are treatments for paresthesia?
Treatment for paresthesia will depend on the underlying cause. In most cases, effectively treating the primary condition will result in relieving the secondary symptoms of paresthesia.
Temporary paresthesia caused by sitting for extended periods of time or sleeping in an awkward position typically will resolve once you change positions or move around.
Treatments for orthopedic causes of paresthesia
When paresthesia symptoms are caused by an orthopedic condition or injury, treatments include:
- Braces or splints, to stabilize and temporarily immobilize a strain or sprain that is causing numbness.
- Long-term immobilization, to allow for healing of neck or spinal fractures that may result in paresthesia.
- Medications, such as cortisone injections, to relieve pain and inflammation caused by carpal tunnel syndrome, nerve compression, or a herniated disk, which in turn may also relieve numbness caused by those conditions.
- Physical therapy and exercise, to strengthen muscles and relieve symptoms—including paresthesia—associated with herniated disk, osteoporosis, or bone and muscle injuries.
- Surgery, such as carpal tunnel release or spinal fusion, to address severe pain and numbness caused by nerve compression and entrapment.
Treatments for neurological causes of paresthesia
Paresthesia can be a symptom of a serious neurological condition. Doctors may address these underlying conditions with treatments including:
- Alcohol abuse rehabilitation, to treat alcohol addiction, which can lead to alcoholic neuropathy, a complication of alcohol abuse that results in nerve damage.
- Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or targeted therapy, to treat brain tumors that may be causing paresthesia symptoms.
- Diabetes treatment and management, including diet, exercise, insulin, medications, and weight loss, to prevent the progression of diabetic neuropathy, a complication of diabetes that causes nerve damage, most often in the legs and feet.
- Endovascular embolization, to treat an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) that is putting pressure on the spine, resulting in paresthesia. Doctors may also use stereotactic radiosurgery, a procedure that uses focused beams of radiation, to treat AVM.
- Medication including drugs originally prescribed for stroke or depression that help rebalance the brain’s pain-signaling network.
- Multiple sclerosis treatment and management, including complementary therapies, medications and physical therapy, to address paresthesia symptoms caused by MS.
- Surgery, such as carotid endarterectomy or aneurysm repair, to treat or prevent stroke, which can cause paresthesia and other nerve symptoms.
How can you prevent paresthesia?
Preventing paresthesia begins with managing your risk factors for the underlying conditions that can cause paresthesia symptoms. While you cannot control all health risk factors, such as hereditary conditions, you can work to reduce the risk factors you can control.
Steps you can take to reduce your risk of orthopedic or neurological conditions that cause paresthesia include:
- Avoiding alcohol or drinking in moderation (recommended as up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men), to reduce health risks including high blood pressure, liver disease, and alcoholic neuropathy, a complication of alcohol addiction.
- Eating a heart-healthy diet, low in fat and cholesterol, to reduce risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. A balanced intake of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B12 and calcium, can also help prevent vitamin deficiency and osteoporosis.
- Exercising, to improve muscle strength and flexibility, which reduces pressure on bones and joints and lowers risk of strains, sprains or fractures.
- Maintaining a healthy weight, to ease pressure on bones and muscles and to reduce risk of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes, which can lead to a complication called diabetic neuropathy that causes numbness, most often in the legs and feet.
- Moving positions often, to avoid temporary numbness caused by sitting in an awkward position for too long or chronic paresthesia caused by repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Wearing protective equipment during athletics or other high-impact physical activities, to prevent or reduce orthopedic injuries—such as neck or back strains, sprains or fractures—that could result in nerve compression or nerve damage.