Merck Manual

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Last full review/revision Oct 2019| Content last modified Oct 2019
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What is numbness?

Numbness is loss of feeling in part of your body. You may have less feeling than usual or no feeling at all. Numbness can be a sign of a problem with your brain or your spinal cord. With numbness, you may not be able to:

  • Feel a light touch

  • Sense pain

  • Tell hot from cold

  • Sense vibration

  • Know the position of the numb part of your body

Along with numbness, you may also have:

  • Tingling or a pins-and-needles feeling

  • Weakness

  • Paralysis (trouble moving part of your body)

Numbness can cause problems with balance and coordination. It can affect your ability to walk or drive.

When should I see a doctor for numbness?

See a doctor right away if you have numbness with any of these warning signs:

  • The numbness came on suddenly (within minutes or hours)

  • You also have weakness in part of your body that came on quickly (within hours or days)

  • The numbness or weakness quickly spread up or down your body, involving more and more parts of your body

  • An entire leg or arm is numb

  • Your face and torso are numb

  • You have numbness or weakness and trouble moving, talking, or seeing

  • Your thighs, buttocks, or genital area are numb and you are incontinent (lose control of your pee or poop)

  • The numbness is on both sides of your body below a specific point, such as below the middle of your chest

If you have numbness without these warning signs, call your doctor. Your doctor can decide how quickly to see you based on your symptoms.

What causes numbness?

When you touch something with your hand, the nerves in your hand send messages to your brain. The messages allow you to feel what you touch. Similar nerves connect all different parts of your body to your brain. Numbness happens when something goes wrong with the path on which those messages travel. Many different disorders and medicines can block or put pressure on this path, such as:

  • Infection, such as Lyme disease or HIV

  • Not having enough vitamin B12 in your body

  • Osteoarthritis that presses on the nerves coming out of the spinal cord

  • Pressure on a nerve from repeated motions or sitting in one position too long

  • Injury to the brain, spinal cord or nerves

Some people get numbness and tingling in their hands and around their mouth when they feel anxious and breathe too fast (hyperventilation). This isn't dangerous.

What will happen at my doctor visit?

Doctors will ask questions about your numbness and do an exam.

Doctors may do tests depending on what they think the cause may be, such as:

  • Nerve conduction test (a nerve test that sends small electric shocks through a part of your body—this tells doctors how well a nerve conducts electricity)

  • Electromyography (a muscle test that uses small needles to record the electrical activity of a muscle)

  • MRI

  • Blood tests

How do doctors treat numbness?

Doctors treat the problem that's causing your numbness.

Doctors may suggest ways to help ease symptoms and prevent other problems:

  • If your foot is numb, wear shoes and socks that fit well and check for pebbles or other things in your shoes before putting them on

  • Check your numb area for sores, redness, or swelling

  • If your hand is numb, be careful when touching things that may be hot or sharp

  • If you have problems walking, getting physical therapy or using a cane or walker may help you walk safely and prevent falls

Talk with your doctor about whether it's safe for you to drive.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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Symptoms of Brain, Spinal Cord, and Nerve Disorders
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