Paresthesia: Why Your Body Parts Tingle and Fall Asleep

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There you are, happily watching TV or reading in your favorite chair. But when you try to get up, you realize that your foot has "fallen asleep."

It's an expression that means your foot may feel numb or overcome with a pins and needles sensation. Moving your muscles is nearly impossible in this state.

Contrary to popular thought, the feeling has less to do with blood circulation and more to do with nerves. Specifically, it's called paresthesia.

Paresthesia is an abnormal sensation felt in your body due to the compression or irritation of nerves. It may be mechanical—as in a pinched nerve—or it may be due to a medical condition, injury, or illness.

This article explains the symptoms and causes of paresthesia. It also explains how the condition is diagnosed and treated.

Woman's feet in pink socks sticking out from under a blanket
Nicolevanf / Getty Images

Paresthesia Symptoms

Paresthesia may cause various symptoms in your arm or leg. These symptoms may range from mild to severe, and they may be fleeting or long-lasting. The signs may include:

  • A burning feeling
  • Difficulty contracting your muscles and using the affected arm or leg
  • Feeling like your arm or leg has fallen asleep
  • Itching
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Pins and needles feeling

These symptoms usually last for 30 minutes or less. Shaking the affected body part often can speed up the process.

Paresthesia usually affects only one arm or leg at a time. But both arms and legs may be affected, depending on the cause.

Causes

Most cases of paresthesia resolve on their own, especially if you're willing to move around a bit. It's usually possible to prevent paresthesia by sitting with proper posture while, say, watching TV or reading. Sitting the wrong way may compress a nerve and bring on the symptoms.

Some causes of paresthesia are more concerning. These can include:

  • Altered nerve function due to a condition, such as diabetes
  • Central nervous system conditions, such as a stroke or multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Compression of a spinal nerve due to a herniated disc
  • Tension and traction or pulling on a nerve

When to Get Help

If paresthesia symptoms don't get better quickly or keep coming back for unknown reasons, it may be time to call your healthcare provider. If the cause of your paresthesia is due to an acute central nervous system condition, like a stroke, then time is of the essence. Seek a diagnosis and medical care immediately.

A worsening case of paresthesia should be monitored by your healthcare provider. Peripheral neuropathy caused by diabetes usually starts with a feeling of paresthesia in your foot or feet, and it can get worse and lead to other complications. It's a warning sign that your diabetes is poorly controlled and needs to be managed appropriately.

Diagnosis

Shaking your arm or leg, moving to a better position, and waiting a few minutes is often an effective self-care treatment.

If the symptoms of paresthesia won't go away, you should call your healthcare provider to find out what is causing the abnormal sensations. They can work with you to understand the problem and perform the right diagnostic tests to determine the cause.

Common diagnostic procedures for paresthesia include:

Your healthcare provider will choose these tests based on a physical exam.

For example, if your paresthesia is accompanied by back or neck pain, your healthcare provider may suspect a pinched spinal nerve. If you have a history of diabetes that is poorly controlled, your healthcare provider may suspect peripheral neuropathy.

Treatment

If your symptoms are triggered by a central nervous condition like MS or a stroke, you'll want to work closely with your healthcare provider to get the right treatment. Medicine may help your symptoms. And physical therapy may help improve your overall functional mobility.

If your paresthesia is caused by compression of a spinal nerve, as with a condition like sciatica, you may benefit from physical therapy to help remove pressure from your nerve.

Your physical therapist may prescribe spinal exercises that can relieve compression of your nerve and restore normal sensations and motion to your arm or leg. If you have weakness along with paresthesia, your PT may prescribe strengthening exercises to restore normal mobility.

If a herniated disc is causing the abnormal sensations, and if you have failed to improve with conservative measures like PT, you may benefit from surgery to help relieve pressure on your nerve or nerves.

The goal of surgery, like a laminectomy or discectomy, is to allow the nerve to function normally again. After surgery, you may benefit from physical therapy to help you regain normal mobility again.

If peripheral neuropathy from diabetes is the cause of the paresthesia, the symptoms are often relatively permanent and may change only slightly with medication.

Treatment for paresthesia depends on your diagnosis. Your healthcare provider can help determine the best course of action for you to take.

Summary

You may call it annoying—that tingly or pins and needles feeling that floods your arm or leg when you've been resting in the same position for too long. Medically speaking, it's called paresthesia, which occurs when a nerve has been compressed or damaged.

Most of the time, it passes quickly, soon after a quick shake or a brisk walk. It's time to consult your healthcare provider if the symptoms linger for more than 30 minutes. You may require special treatment if your paresthesia is due to a serious underlying cause.

A Word From Verywell

In most cases of paresthesia, there is no need to worry; the symptoms will pass as you move around a bit. If you have lingering symptoms or if your foot is asleep and not waking up, then you should see your healthcare provider for a deeper diagnosis and treatment. Most of the time, you can do simple things to relieve your paresthesia so you can return to your normal work and leisure activities.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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