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Can Numbness and Tingling be Signs of a Serious Problem?

A doctor examining numbness and tingling in a patient's hand.

Can Numbness and Tingling Be Signs of a Serious Problem?

Nerves in the body are very delicate. They serve as warning alarms when we overdo it or are sitting or standing incorrectly. They also can warn us of an underlying medical condition. Our nervous system represents a vast network of “wiring” that communicates with the brain.

So, how do we know when we should take numbness and tingling seriously and when to chalk it up to some minor strain? The following information will give you the clues you need to know to understand the difference.

Numbness and Tingling: How to Know When It’s Serious and When It Isn’t

It’s a common question, “Can numbness and tingling be signs of a serious problem?” How do you know? What is known as temporary numbness or tingling often happens after you spend a long time in one position - such as sitting cross-legged or sitting on your foot (causing it to fall asleep).

Both these activities can lead to numbness and a tingling sensation. In some cases, people may jar their elbow in the spot called the funny bone. When this happens, they get smacked with an unpleasant tingling sensation that is far from comforting. By the way, the funny bone really isn’t a bone but is medically called the ulnar nerve. If you squash the nerve though, it does come into contact with the medial epicondyle bone. This results in a shocking nerve pain that spans down the forearm and ends in the fingers.

When you experience the above examples of numbness and tingling, you usually don’t have to worry. It’s just the body’s way of rebelling when you sit too long or you unwittingly “hit the wrong nerve.” Any numbness and tingling that is long-term may be a sign of a neurological condition or may be a sign of damaged nerves. The temporary sensations of numbness and tingling represent paresthesia. In some cases, patients report a pricking sensation. Neuropathy leads to numbness and weakness in the feet and legs, arms and hands, and facial area.

Is Your Paresthesia Ongoing?

If you have ongoing paresthesia, that’s when you should visit a neurologist. For example, these types of feelings are common and early signs of multiple sclerosis or MS. MS triggers mild to severe cases of paresthesia in various areas, including the arms and hands, legs and feet, and face. In some instances, the patient experiences what is known as an MS hug. The sensations move over the body in a band.

Paresthesia and MS

When associated with MS, paresthesia is usually not permanent or debilitating. However, severe numbness may make it difficult for a patient to use a body area with no feeling, thereby making daily activities difficult.

For instance, if you feel numbness in your hands, you can find it difficult to hold things or pick anything up. Likewise, if your legs or feet are numb, driving and walking can prove difficult. Numbness in the face may cause you to bite your tongue. People who experience severe numbness may mistakenly get frostbite or get burned.

If you experience numbness and/or tingling in the fingers, it may be due to calcium deficit called hypocalcemia. Panic attacks or anxiety may lead to tingling and numbness in the hands. The face may become numb if a patient has a gingival infection or a toothache.

Other Conditions that May Cause Numbness and/or Tingling

Other conditions that require neurological care that cause numbness or tingling may include:

Severe Magnesium Deficiencies

Even a magnesium deficiency can affect your central nervous systems. Magnesium is a nutrient and mineral that regulates nerve functioning. Hypomagnesemia, which is a severe magnesium deficiency, causes ongoing paresthesia.

Diabetes and Neuropathy

Often people with diabetic neuropathy will notice tingling or numbness in the legs and feet. Nerve damage may occur over time because of the metabolic impact of the disease.

Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is a form of nerve damage that appears in the toes and feet, which causes pain and numbness. The condition, in rare instances, affects the arms and hands. Also called peripheral neuritis, peripheral neuropathy may be attributed to diabetes but may also result from the administration of certain medications.


These medicines may include antidepressants, such as amitriptyline or pain medicines, such as oxycodone. Liver damage resulting from the excess use of alcohol may also lead to peripheral neuropathy.

Learning More about Your Condition - Making a Diagnosis

If you have ongoing problems with numbness and/or tingling, you’ll need to have the condition checked by a neurologist. Paresthesia or neuropathy is determined and diagnosed through a patient’s medical history and a physical exam. This exam may include testing the patient's temperature, touch, reflexes, and muscle functioning.

Identifying Neurological Conditions

Medical tests used to identify numbness or tingling may include blood tests, imaging, or nerve conduction. A blood test can determine specific conditions, such as nutritional deficiencies or diabetes.

Imaging tests, such as MRIs or X-rays, allow a neurologist to look for growths or injuries such as a tumor herniated disc. He or she may examine the brain to check for a brain disorder, stroke, MS, or tumor. When nerve condition is used, the physician places electrodes over certain nerves and emits an electrical signal to check for damage or injury.

Some tests involve the use of electromyography. During this exam, the medical practitioner inserts a small needle into a muscle. This procedure is combined with nerve conduction to check for muscle or nerve damage.

Make an Appointment if Your Numbness and/or Tingling is Ongoing

If you have been experiencing numbness and/or tingling that is ongoing, whether frequent or infrequent, contact a neurologist and check out the reason for the reaction. The sooner you get an answer, the sooner you can receive treatment and experience some relief.

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