8 Causes of Leg Numbness

Numbness, tingling, or pins and needles can sometimes be a sign of something serious.

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Who hasn't experienced a little numbness or tingling in their legs from time to time? Maybe it felt more like pins and needles after sitting the wrong way or like fatigue after standing too long.

Chances are, a numb leg isn't a big deal. But sometimes, numbness in your legs can be due to a more pressing health concern. It may be best to figure out what may be causing it, especially if you frequently experience leg numbness or if numbness travels to other areas of your body.

"The vast majority of numbness and tingling we see turns out to be nothing to worry about," said Anthony Geraci, MD, director of the Neuromuscular Center at Northwell Health's Neuroscience Institute in Manhasset, New York.

"If someone has numbness and tingling that lasts more than a week and involves more than one area and moves or gets bigger, that's the clue that it could be something [more serious]."

Here are some things numbness and tingling in your legs might mean.

Pinched Nerve

A pinched nerve, also called a pressed or compressed nerve, is exactly what it sounds like: Some of the structures around the nerve, like muscles, tendons, tissue, and bone, pinch the nerve and cause different sensations.

According to Stanford Medicine Children's Health, pinched nerves may cause numbness in your legs, and any number of things can cause them, including injuries.

Pinched nerves can also cause sciatica, pain that radiates the length of the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower back down each leg. And according to John Hopkins Medicine, some people with sciatica may also experience leg numbness.

Luckily, pinched nerves are usually treatable without a lot of hassle. "We look at posture, muscle strength, and balance, lifting correctly, and strengthening the core," said Ethel Frese, DPT, a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association and professor at Doisy College of Health Sciences at Saint Louis University.

Some people also need pain relievers. Surgery may be necessary in rare cases when a pinched nerve causes weakness and pain, Dr. Geraci said.

Herniated Disk

A herniated disk can lead to a pinched nerve.

Think of your spine as a series of bones connected by disks. Think of the disks as jelly donuts. If the jelly squeezes out, you have a herniated, slipped, or ruptured disk. "If that jelly gets squeezed backward, it can press a nerve and cause numbness and tingling," Frese explained.

The smallest wrong move can send a disk out of whack, Frese added. "We see this in a lot of people who bend over too much. Bending forward has the tendency to make the jelly go backward." Lifting something while hunched forward in that position is particularly risky, Frese said.

According to MedlinePlus, many herniated disks can be treated conservatively through physical therapy and pain relievers. In extreme cases, you might need surgery.

Diabetes

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nerve damage can occur in those with diabetes who have high blood sugar levels for long periods. Affected nerves can include ones that transmit messages between the brain and spine and other parts of the body, such as the legs.

There are more than 100 types of this nerve damage, called peripheral neuropathy. Diabetic neuropathy is the most common peripheral neuropathy because so many people have type 2 diabetes, said Dr. Geraci.

You can prevent neuropathy by taking care of your diabetes with diet, exercise, and appropriate medications. Once you have nerve damage, there's not usually a cure—though there are ways to tame the symptoms.

You'll also need to examine your feet and legs daily to ensure no additional problems develop. Numbness can mean you may not notice nicks or cuts that could lead to dangerous infections.

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the sheath that covers nerve cells, known as myelin, according to MedlinePlus. The condition may cause numbness in different body parts, including the legs.

The exact cause of MS is unknown. It's theorized that genetics and infections by slow-acting or dormant viruses like Epstein-Barr virus may be factors, according to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America.

There is no cure for MS, but medications and other treatment methods like physical therapy may help control symptoms, MedlinePlus states.

Lupus

Lupus is an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system attacks healthy cells. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, lupus can cause peripheral neuropathy, which commonly results in numbness in the hands and feet but can also affect the legs.

This numbness can sometimes be relieved by treating the underlying condition and following healthy lifestyle advice like eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly, according to John Hopkins Medicine.

"Treatment for neuropathy generally [addresses symptoms], but it doesn't affect the underlying disease process," said Dr. Geraci.

Stroke

The authors of a 2018 review published in Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research noted that research shows that about 50% and 30% of all strokes occur in those over the age of 75 and 85, respectively.

However, stroke can happen at any age, and the symptoms tend to be the same: slurred speech, numbness, and weakness or paralysis on one side of the body. The symptoms come on suddenly and are more common in people with risk factors like high blood pressure, a history of smoking, and diabetes, according to John Hopkins Medicine.

Medication can help prevent permanent damage from certain types of strokes, but it has to be given quickly. Get help at the first sign of a stroke.

Peripheral Artery Disease

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) occurs when narrowed arteries reduce blood flow to your arms and especially your legs, according to the CDC. In addition to numbness and tingling, PAD can make walking painful.

The CDC notes that PAD is usually a red flag that you have atherosclerosis, a buildup of fatty deposits in your arteries. This could set you up for several other problems down the line, including a heart attack or stroke.

Quitting smoking, eating a balanced diet, and exercising can stave off PAD and its complications. There are also medications to help if those aren't enough.

Tumors

In rare cases, a tumor could grow in a way that presses on a nerve, causing leg numbness and tingling, according to the American Cancer Society. If cancerous, treatment may include chemotherapy, which has also been known to result in peripheral neuropathy in some people.

While it's unlikely your numbness is caused by cancer, discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider.

"If you have numbness and tingling that doesn't go away, you need to be seen," Frese said. Even many less dire causes of leg numbness can be taken care of.

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