What Is Paresthesia?

Maybe you fell asleep with your arm pinned under you. Or you kept your legs crossed too long. Chances are, you've had a "pins and needles" feeling in your limbs, fingers, or feet.

That prickling, burning, tingling, numb, itching, or "skin crawling" feeling is called paresthesia. While it may seem weird, it's usually painless and harmless. But sometimes it can be a sign of a more serious medical problem.

Causes

Paresthesia is caused by pressure on a nerve. When that pressure is gone -- you uncross your legs, for example -- the feeling goes away.

But in some cases, it doesn't go away. Or if it does, it comes back regularly. That's called chronic paresthesia, and it can be a sign of a medical condition or nerve damage. Chronic paresthesia can be caused by:

  • An injury or accident that caused nerve damage
  • A stroke or mini-stroke -- when blood flow to your brain is cut off and causes damage
  • Multiple sclerosis -- a disease of the central nervous system that affects the way your body feels
  • Diabetes -- a blood sugar disorder that can damage your nerves over time
  • A pinched nerve (often in your neck, shoulder, or arm) from injury or overuse
  • Sciatica -- pressure on the sciatic nerve (which goes from your lower pelvis to your buttocks and legs), a common problem during pregnancy that typically causes numbness and pain in your back or legs
  • Carpel tunnel syndrome -- when the small tunnel that goes from your wrist to your lower palm gets too narrow and causes pain and numbness in your forearm, wrist, hand, and fingers
  • Lack of some vitamins, especially low levels of vitamin B12, which is important for nerve health
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Certain medications -- such as some types of chemotherapy that cause nerve irritation or damage as well as some antibiotics, HIV, and anti-seizure medications

Treatment

In many cases, paresthesia goes away on its own. But if any area of your body regularly goes numb or gets that "pins and needles" feeling, talk to your doctor. She'll ask about your medical history and do a physical exam.

She also may recommend certain tests to figure out what's causing your paresthesia. These might include an X-ray, blood test, or magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI). An MRI uses powerful magnets and radio waves to make detailed images of certain areas of your body.

Treating the cause of your paresthesia will usually help with your pins and needles.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on November 16, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "NINDS Paresthesia Information."

Harvard Medical School: "Vitamin B12 Deficiency Can Be Sneaky, Harmful."

Gov.UK/ National Health Service: "Pins and Needles," "Stroke."

National Multiple Sclerosis Society: "What Is MS?"

© 2016 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.