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Numbness

Medically reviewed on January 11, 2018

Definition

Numbness describes a loss of sensation or feeling in a part of your body. It's often accompanied by or combined with other changes in sensation, such as a pins-and-needles feeling, burning or tingling. Numbness can occur along a single nerve, on one side of the body, or it may occur symmetrically, on both sides of the body.

Causes

Numbness is most often caused by damage, irritation or compression of nerves. A single nerve branch, or several nerves, may be affected, as with a slipped disc in the back or carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrist. Certain diseases, such as diabetes, which can damage the longest, most sensitive nerve fibers (such as those going to your feet), can also cause numbness.

Usually, the affected nerves are located on the periphery of your body. Only rarely is numbness caused by problems in your brain or spinal cord. Numbness alone is only rarely associated with potentially life-threatening disorders, such as strokes or tumors.

Your doctor will need detailed information about your symptoms to diagnose the cause of your numbness. A variety of tests may be needed to confirm the cause before appropriate treatment can begin.

Causes of numbness:

  • Acoustic neuroma
  • Alcohol use disorder (Alcoholism)
  • Amyloidosis (buildup of abnormal proteins in your organs)
  • Brachial plexus injury
  • Brain aneurysm (a bulge in an artery in your brain)
  • Brain AVM (arteriovenous malformation) — an abnormal formation of brain blood vessels
  • Brain tumor
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (a group of hereditary disorders that affects the nerves in your arms and legs)
  • Diabetes
  • Fabry's disease
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • Heavy metal exposure
  • Herniated disk
  • Leprosy
  • Lyme disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Paraneoplastic syndromes of the nervous system
  • Peripheral nerve compression (ulnar or peroneal nerves)
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Porphyria
  • Raynaud's disease
  • Shingles (herpes zoster infection)
  • Side effects of chemotherapy or anti-HIV drugs
  • Sjogren's syndrome
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Spinal cord tumor
  • Stroke
  • Syphilis
  • Thoracic aortic aneurysm
  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA)
  • Vasculitis (blood vessel inflammation)
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency

When to see a doctor

Numbness can have a variety of causes. Most are harmless, but some can be life-threatening.

Call 911 or seek emergency help if your numbness:

  • Begins suddenly
  • Follows a recent head injury
  • Involves an entire arm or leg

Also seek emergency medical care if your numbness is accompanied by:

  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty talking
  • Dizziness
  • Sudden, severe headache

You are likely to have a CT scan or MRI if:

  • You've had a head injury
  • Your doctor suspects or needs to rule out a brain tumor or stroke

Schedule an office visit if your numbness:

  • Begins or worsens gradually
  • Affects both sides of the body
  • Comes and goes
  • Seems related to certain tasks or activities, particularly repetitive motions
  • Affects only a part of a limb, such as your toes or fingers

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