What causes numbness?

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 numbness can be due to any activity that causes prolonged pressure on a nerve or nerves, such as sitting cross legged or bicycling long distance. Numbness can occur with moderate to serious orthopedic or circulatory conditions, as well as conditions and diseases that damage the nervous system. In some cases, numbness is a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated as soon as possible in an emergency setting.

Circulatory causes of numbness

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)

  • Raynaud’s phenomenon (rare disorder that narrows blood vessels in the fingers and toes when they are exposed to cold, or sometimes from stress)

Orthopedic causes of numbness

Numbness may also occur due to 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

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

  • Degenerative disk disease

  • Herniated disk

  • Nerve entrapment or nerve pressure

  • Osteoporosis

Neurological causes of numbness

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

  • Alcoholism

  • Brain tumor

  • Diabetic neuropathy (nerve 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

  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)

  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord)

  • Peripheral neuropathy (disorder of the peripheral nerves that lie outside your brain and spinal cord)

  • Spinal cord injury or tumor

  • Stroke

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (a disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)

  • Transverse myelitis (neurological disorder causing inflammation of the spinal cord)

  • Vitamin B12 deficiency (as in pernicious anemia)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of numbness

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will most likely ask you several questions related to your numbness including:

  • What is your workplace environment like?
  • Where are you feeling numb?

  • When did the numbness start?

  • How long does the numbness last?

  • Are there any activities that cause the numbness?

  • Are you experiencing other sensations, such as pain, burning or itchiness?

What are the potential complications of numbness?

Because 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 numbness or other abnormal feelings. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important that you follow the treatment plan outlined by your health care provider to reduce your risk of potential complications including:

  • Adverse effects of treatment for numbness
  • Hand disability

  • Inability to breathe on your own

  • Inability to walk

  • Organ failure

  • Paralysis

  • Permanent loss of sensation

  • Permanent pain

  • Poor quality of life


  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.
  2. Muscle function loss. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003190.htm.
  3. Questions and answers about Raynaud’s phenomenon. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal. http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Raynauds_Phenomenon/default.asp
  4. Diabetic nerve problems. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://vsearch.nlm.nih.gov/vivisimo/cgi-bin/query-meta?v%3Aproject=medlineplus&query=diabetic+neurop...
  5. Peripheral nerve disorders. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://vsearch.nlm.nih.gov/vivisimo/cgi-bin/query-meta?v%3Aproject=medlineplus&query=peripheral+nerv...
  6. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
  7. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.

What is numbness?

Numbness is an abnormal condition in which a person feels tingling or a loss of sensation. Numbness can occur anywhere on the body, but it is most often felt in the extremities, such as the hands, feet, fingers, and toes.

There are many different causes of numbness. Numbness usually arises from a lack of blood supply to an area, nerve compression, or nerve damage. Numbness can als... Read more about numbnessintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with numbness?

Numbness may also be described as a tingling sensation, and numbness after sitting in one position for a long period of time can lead to a pins-and-needles sensation. Numbness most often occurs in the arms, legs, hands and feet, but can happen anywhere in the body. You may experience additional symptoms along with numbness. Any symptoms you notice occurring with numbness can help your doctor ma... Read more about numbnesssymptoms

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Sep 20, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

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