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If you no longer feel your earlobes or your skin does not respond to touch, then we speak of numbness. We all know them: when we sit at the desk for a long time and one foot “falls asleep” or when we are outside without gloves and frost and the fingertips get cold.
Feeling numb - the most important facts
- Feeling numb and tingling are disorders of sensitivity and sensation.
- They arise especially on the arms, legs, fingers, toes, hands and feet, lips, nose, mouth or ears, i.e. on parts of the body that are difficult for the blood to reach.
- Lack of blood flow is a common cause, but not the only one. There may also be nerve disorders, an imbalance in hormones or metabolic disorders.
- Other causes include skin diseases, allergies and alcohol, diabetes, herpes infections or herniated discs.
- Although numbness often has harmless causes, you should be careful. The sensations are also an accompanying symptom of very serious illnesses. These include stroke and cancer.
Numbness and tingling
When it is cold, the vessels contract and only a little blood reaches the “protruding” parts of the bloodstream such as fingers, toes, nose and ears. There the sensitivity decreases. If we get warm now, the vessels open, the sensation increases again, and we notice this as an unpleasant tingling sensation - as if we had needles under the skin.
This stinging pain arises from nerve endings in the skin, the nerve pathways pass it on, and then the brain emits the signal pain. So while numbness has to do with reduced nerve activity, this tends to increase when tingling.
The tingling sensation often follows numbness, but sometimes it precedes it. Then the nerve pathways are overactive. The pain changes from stinging to burning. Even if feelings of numbness and tingling are at first opposed to each other (once overactivity of the nerves, once underactivity), both are often related: the nerve conduction does not work normally.
The underactivity of the nerves, which is shown by numbness, is what doctors call hypaesthesia. Nerves can be damaged at the respective points, a part of the body is under-supplied due to an impaired blood flow, or a whole half of the body is paralyzed by a stroke.
Where is the problem?
The center of the numbness can be right there, like the hypothermic hands, which become sensitive again when we hold them in warm water. But the starting point can also be far away from the scene, at nerve switching points. For example, tingling fingers can result from a damaged cervical spine.
Causes - The peripheral nerves
The immediate reasons are mostly nerve damage or problems with blood circulation. Numbness sensations often originate from the peripheral nervous system, which also includes the sensory nerves, which transmit sensations to parts of the body to the brain. This nervous system can in turn be disrupted for a variety of reasons.
These include diseases such as diabetes, for example, which cause an imbalance in hormone metabolism. Those affected have a high risk of developing nerve damage and circulatory disorders that lead to a lack of sensation.
Another cause is injury. Injury changes the tissue around the peripheral nerves and blood vessels (bones, tendons, connective tissue, etc.) or the nerves and blood vessels themselves are wounded - or even torn. Then there is deafness.
Third, tumors, tumors, or edema, cysts, or abscesses can press peripheral nerves and cause numbness.
The central nervous system
The central nervous system is located in the brain and spinal cord. As with the peripheral nerves, inflammation, tumors, abscesses and other pathological changes ensure that nerves and vessels are cut off or pinched. Here, in the control centers of the nerve impulses, nerve damage leads to numbness in distant parts of the body. This is especially true for a stroke, i.e. an infarction in the brain.
The diverse causes of numbness include skin diseases, frostbite, burns and external injuries. Even psychological conditions such as anxiety attacks can (temporarily) cause numbness in the skin. The sentence "paralyzed with fear" sums it up.
Poisoning is accompanied by numbness. Venomous snakes inject nerve or blood toxins, and some species even a combination of the two. The poisons cause numbness first around the bite site, followed by paralysis and finally the tissue dies.
Chronic alcohol abuse also damages the nerves, and alcoholics know tingling fingertips as well as numb tips of the nose or numb toes. If the abuse continues, the damage to the nerves and vessels is shown by the bluish color of the fingers, broken veins and reddish-blue noses.
Temporary numbness of the skin also occurs as a side effect of medication. These are, for example, anti-epileptics and antihypertensives, as well as agents for depression. In the case of blood pressure lowerers, the cause of the deafness is clear: if the blood pressure drops, peripheral parts of the body are less supplied with blood and can therefore feel numb. While this is not pleasant, it is also not dangerous.
In summary, important causes of feelings of numbness are:
- Circulatory problems,
- pinched or severed nerves,
- decreased nerve activity,
- Herniated discs,
- Lack of vitamin B 12,
The doctor first asks when and in what situations the deafness occurs. Does it pass or is it chronic? Does it occur with concrete triggers on or without context to external influences? Is it one-sided or two-sided? Does it change, does it cover ever larger areas, or does it remain the same? The doctor is now checking the reflexes and senses, plus eyes and ears. If serious illnesses are suspected, specific examinations are required.
If the blood circulation is disturbed by cold, you usually know the cause yourself. If you step into icy water in wet and cold weather and walk around with your feet chilled, the vessels contract and the foot feels numb. First of all, it's not dramatic. If you get warm before your foot freezes, hold your foot (or hand, cheeks, ears, etc.) in lukewarm water and the blood will return, usually with a tingling sensation, like ants under your skin. This is not a reason to go to the doctor.
If the numbness of the fingers or toes - or the impaired blood flow - has no recognizable cause, then you should see a doctor immediately. There can be serious diseases such as Raynaud's disease or arteriosclerosis.
Circulatory disorders in the veins in the legs and in the brain are often shown by a numb feeling. But be careful: having no numb feeling does not necessarily mean the all-clear. With the most dangerous circulatory disorders outside the brain, those on the heart, you do not feel numbness, but the feeling of tightness in the chest.
So when to see a doctor?
You should definitely go to the doctor if the feelings of numbness begin with no advance and no apparent cause, if they are strong, if they persist for a long time, and if they are accompanied by other symptoms. Symptoms may include: dizziness, fever, fits of weakness, fatigue, hallucinations, drowsiness, nausea, irritation, poor concentration, persistent fatigue, blurred vision, rash or headache.
Signs of a stroke are sudden numbness and paralysis on one side of the body, for example in the leg, arm, mouth or face. There are also speech and vision disorders and headaches. You must go to the doctor immediately.
The cyclist paralysis
Not always, but often, the location of the numbness indicates the cause. Cycling does not have to be the cause of “cyclist paralysis”, but we notice it in a typical cyclist movement.
If the cyclist kinks his or her wrists on the handlebars, a constriction can occur at which the ulnar nerve becomes trapped. Almost every cyclist knows the following numbness in the fingers of the corresponding hand.
Feeling of numbness is not a disease, but a symptom that can have various causes. Temporary numbness due to incorrect posture, such as "falling asleep" on the subway or "paralysis of the cyclist" will disappear automatically when you move these parts of the body again. If your feet or hands are numb, it helps to shake them vigorously.
If diabetes is the cause of the numbness, the doctor adjusts the blood sugar optimally. If herpes viruses experience numbness, the doctor treats them with a virostatic that slows down the multiplication of the viruses.
In the event of a herniated disc, it is important to relieve the spine. In addition, you get pain relievers and agents that relax the muscles.
If the feelings of numbness arise from an illness, this basic illness must always be treated. However, the symptoms can also be relieved by home remedies, by compresses, massages, walks and gymnastics.
Firstly, warmth increases blood circulation and secondly relaxes the muscles in the affected area. If the nerves are better supplied with blood, their activity increases and the sensation of numbness subsides.
If nerves in the spine are affected, a warm washcloth on the neck or (with a pinched nerve below) on the lumbar vertebrae helps. It should be a washcloth with warm water, because the wet heat penetrates the tissue better than dry heat. You just need to soak a rag in warm water, wring it out and place it on the appropriate area for about five minutes. Repeat this several times a day until the numb feelings have disappeared. The emphasis is on warm. The water should not be so hot that you burn your skin.
Pillows, heated blankets or warm showers filled and heated with cherry stones also help.
Massages have a similar effect to heat, they stimulate blood circulation and nerves. You often find out for yourself which nerve is affected. If not: With a "numb foot" you should also massage the lower leg, buttocks and lumbar spine, with "numb hands" the neck, forearm and hand.
To do this, rub a little warm oil (olive or mustard) into the palm of your hand, apply light pressure to the area of your skin, knead the skin with your fingertips and let your hands circle on the skin.
A must for circulatory disorders. When we move, oxygen returns to all regions of the body, blood circulation improves, muscles, nerves and connective tissue stick less. The affected nerve "learns" to function normally again.
In addition to longer walks, you can also shake hands and feet for a few minutes a day, pull your shoulders back, stretch your wrists, and relax your legs. Stop immediately if it hurts the affected area. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
- Michael C. Levin: numbness, MSD Manual, (accessed 08/13/2019), MSD
- David R. Steinberg: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, MSD Manual, (accessed August 13, 2019), MSD
- Hermann Müller-Vahl et al .: Lesions of peripheral nerves and radicular syndromes, Thieme Verlag, 10th edition, 2014
- Larry E. Johnson, Nutritional Disorders - Vitamin Deficiency, Addiction, and Intoxication - Vitamin B12, MSD Manual, (accessed 8/13/2019), MSD
- Bruce H.R. Wolffenbuttel, M. Rebecca Heiner Fokkema, Hanneke J.C.M. Wouters, Melanie M. van der Klauw: The Many Faces of Cobalamin (Vitamin B12) Deficiency, Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes, (accessed August 13, 2019), MAYO
ICD codes for this disease: R20ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.