Taking breaks after a busy day at your desk is tough. But eventually, a growling stomach and heavy legs that look like static TV stares are sure to force you out of your chair. After a walk and a salad to go, you’re sailing smoothly, but have you ever wondered why that annoying pins-and-needles feeling tends to torment your limbs in the first place?
Medically called paresthesia, “pins and needles” is a strange phenomenon that everyone has experienced at some point. Before, a doctor explains the causes, symptoms, treatments and when to seek professional help if the strange feeling persists.
What causes pins and needles?
The stinging sensation of pins and needles most commonly occurs in the hands, arms, legs, or feet, otherwise known as a “falling asleep” limb. Causes of the sensation, according to Dr. Pescatore, include:
“Limbs fall asleep in part because of poor circulation,” says New York-based family physician Fred Pescatore, MD. Our nerves receive oxygen and nutrients through blood vessels, ensuring that the right amount of blood reaches our organs, he adds. And when a limb remains immobile for a prolonged period, blood flow is inhibited, resulting in a pins and needles sensation.
“A common cause can be pressure on a specific part of the arms or legs, which can cause nerve compression,” says Dr. Pescatore. Think: sleeping in the same position for most of the night, sitting cross-legged or (we’ve all done it!) scrolling endlessly on the toilet.
“When our nerves or blood vessels are compressed, such as when we sit cross-legged, it can compromise the nerve’s ability to transmit impulses to the central nervous system,” adds Pescatore.
Like a bend in a water pipe, oxygen and blood supply are cut off. And in response, the brain raises red flags in the form of pain and discomfort. “The brain interprets these abnormal signals as the pins-and-needles sensation we feel,” says Pescatore.
In rare cases, according to Dr. Pescatore, frequent pins and needles may indicate an underlying condition such as nerve damage (i.e. pinched nerve, carpal tunnel syndrome or sciatica) , diabetes and alcohol abuse. They can also be a symptom of stroke, multiple sclerosis and other neurological conditions, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
What do pins and needles look like?
The name is pretty self-explanatory, but symptoms of pins and needles include feeling numb, tingling, crawling, or itchy, according to the NINDS. Usually, the sensation subsides quickly after the relief of external pressure on the affected area.
How to stop or treat tingling?
“Changing position can usually restore normal sensation, as nerves start sending messages back to the brain and spinal cord,” says Dr. Pescatore. If the limb has been stationary for a long time, more intentional activity may be needed to restore circulation.
“Get up. Shake your arms or legs to get the blood flowing. This may initially amplify the pins and needles feeling, but it gets better from there,” adds Pescatore. Stretch! If you feel the sensation in your legs or feet, change your shoes. Wiggle your toes and spread your fingers inward and outward. This can help restore blood flow and relieve nerves. If the tingling persists, try a warm compress to the area to help circulation.
When should I worry about pins and needles?
The occasional case of pins and needles is completely normal, especially if it surfaces after a prolonged time without movement. However, persistent tingling and needles “can be a sign of more serious conditions, such as nerve damage, and should prompt you to see your doctor,” advises Pescatore.
Kayla Blanton is a freelance writer who reports on all things health and nutrition for men’s health, women’s health, and prevention. Her hobbies include sipping perpetual coffee and pretending to be a choppy contestant while baking.