What Causes Tingling in Feet—And When To See a Doctor

Everything you should know about this strange sensation.

It's almost impossible to ignore any sensations occurring in the feet; after all, your feet are the base that holds everything up. One sensation, in particular, that can happen relatively often (yet is still a bit unsettling) is tingling. It may come on its own or be accompanied by other symptoms and sensations, like numbness or pain.

There are many possible causes for the discomfort you're experiencing. "Tingling in the feet is a sensation or symptom that is described when there is the abnormal firing of the nerves in the body. Tingling can be felt in certain parts of the foot without affecting other parts depending on the condition involved," Nelya Lobkova, DPM, a podiatrist at StepUp Footcare told Health.

With so many potential reasons for this sensation, it's critical to look at each option and determine how to target the root issue. Here are some of the common causes of tingling in the feet, as well as recommended treatments, plus information about when you may want to see a physician.

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Possible Causes of Tingling in the Feet

Nerve Root Compression

Any disease involving the lumbar spine nerve root, compressing or irritating it, can cause a person to have nerve root compression. The nerve roots of the lumbar spine are the parts of the nerves that leave the spinal cord right about where your lower back meets your pelvis. The medical term for this condition is lumbar radiculopathy.

How it's diagnosed: Nerve root compression can cause a person to have tingling in the ball of their foot. It can also bring a burning sensation or feelings of numbness in the toes, said Lobkova. According to the National Institutes of Health's StatPearls medical database, a healthcare provider will ask about your recent history and will perform a physical exam to make a diagnosis. MRI, CT scan, or X-rays may also be ordered to see what, exactly, is going on.

How nerve root compression is treated: A straightforward way to treat nerve root compression symptoms is switching to shoes with a wider toe box, according to Lobkova. This expansion relieves pressure on the nerve root. Use of toe spacers or metatarsal pads can also help to alleviate discomfort. In tandem, anti-inflammatory medication can ease the pain. If none of the above helps, treatment may involve anything from physical therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic manipulation to epidural steroid injections and surgical procedures like disc decompression or lumbar spinal fusion, according to StatPearls.

Spinal Cord Compression

According to StatPearls, spinal cord compression is caused by any condition in which pressure is put on the spinal cord, including the cervical and lumbar spine. This condition can occur due to disease or result from an injury.

How it's diagnosed: Spinal cord compression can cause the entire bottom of the foot to tingle and is unlikely to happen in just one area of the foot, according to Lobkova. This is a key thing your provider will look out for. A spinal specialist can also make a diagnosis through an MRI or electromyography (EMG). (EMG records the electrical activity of muscle tissue.)

How spinal cord compression is treated: Options for treatment include taking anti-inflammatory drugs, physical therapy, and surgical procedures that may widen the space between vertebrae, reports StatPearls. The type of treatment will depend on what, exactly, is putting pressure on the spinal cord.

Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome

Tarsal tunnel syndrome is a condition in which a nerve known as the posterior tibial nerve compresses while traveling through the tarsal tunnel, reports StatPearls. The tarsal tunnel is found inside the ankle, just below where the bone sticks out. This condition is similar to carpal tunnel syndrome but affects the ankles and feet.

How it's diagnosed: Patrick McEneaney, DPM, a podiatrist at Northern Illinois Foot & Ankle Specialists, told Health it can "cause numbness, burning, and tingling that goes down the side of the ankle into the bottom of the foot and the toes." According to StatPearls, it can be diagnosed through EMG or imaging such as an X-ray to look at the hard structures or an ultrasound to look at the soft tissue.

How tarsal tunnel syndrome is treated: Treatment may involve a conservative or surgical approach, according to StatPearls. Conservative treatment would involve anti-inflammatory medication or other medicines to treat pain. Sometimes even topical medicine, like ointment or cream, physical therapy, kinesiology tape, and orthotic shoes can be effective. If conservative management doesn't work, surgery may be the next step.

Raynaud's Phenomenon

Raynaud's Phenomenon is a condition in which blood flow decreases to the fingers, toes, nipples, or other areas of the body. It occurs because the blood vessels narrow when you're cold or stressed, according to MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine. This narrowing prevents blood from getting to the surface of the skin, which causes affected areas to turn white and blue. And it can create tingling or numbness in the toes, according to Lobkova.

How it's diagnosed: Raynaud's phenomenon is diagnosed by nailfold capillary microscopy or blood tests, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). Nailfold capillary microscopy is simply when a doctor looks at the base of your fingernails under a magnifier to see if there are any changes in the small blood vessels called capillaries.

How Raynaud's Phenomenon is treated: Lobkova explained that treatment initially involves warming the areas with socks and Epsom salt soaks. The NIAMS says that avoiding cold can help prevent attacks. While no medication has been approved for Raynaud's phenomenon, off-label medications (ones approved for other conditions) can be used. However, in severe cases, surgery that targets the nerves causing blood vessel narrowing (a procedure called sympathectomy) my provide relief.

Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is a condition in which the nerves located outside the brain or the spine (otherwise known as "peripheral nerves") aren't working properly, reports MedlinePlus. Neuropathy is very common and can damage a single nerve or a group of nerves.

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy affecting the feet include tingling, numbness, burning, cramping, and the sensation of something crawling on the skin, said Lobkova. McEneaney added that people may get equal distribution of nerve damage in their feet or hands so both areas may feel the condition's effects.

Peripheral neuropathy has many causes, and the tingling you're experiencing may be a sign of undiagnosed diabetes. "If left untreated, tingling can then lead to numbness which may or may not be reversible, depending on the root cause," Jackie Sutera, DPM, a podiatrist and Vionic Innovation Lab member, told Health.

How it's diagnosed: There are several tests a healthcare provider can perform to diagnose peripheral neuropathy, according to MedlinePlus. Blood tests are one way to look for nerve damage. Other exams include EMG, nerve conduction studies (which track how long it takes for signals to travel along nerves), nerve biopsy (removal of a nerve sample), and skin biopsy (removal of a skin sample).

How peripheral neuropathy is treated: "Treatment is geared at addressing the root cause of peripheral neuropathy. For instance, for people with diabetes, keeping the glucose levels in the blood low and under control will help to minimize tingling associated with peripheral neuropathy," explained Lobkova. A podiatrist can determine if an underlying condition exists. According to MedlinePlus, other treatments vary depending on the cause and may involve abstaining from alcohol, changing medications, physical therapy, immune therapy, and surgery.

When To See a Healthcare Provider

The only tingling in feet that doesn't require a visit to your healthcare provider is that experienced when your feet occasionally "fall asleep" from compression or lack of movement. This sensation may occur after laying on your foot for a long period of time or wearing shoes that are too tight. However, either of these things also compress the nerves in the area, and if they create tingling, it's worth getting checked out if the sensation doesn't stop after some massage or movement or if it happens consistently, said Sutera.

In all other cases, it's important to see a doctor if you've experienced tingling in your feet for longer than a week. "If it's something that's going to go away, typically it'll go away quickly, but if it's been going on for more than a week, I think it's a good idea to see a doctor and get worked up to figure out what's actually going on," said McEneaney.

Lobkova recommended keeping a log of where, when, and how often you experience tingling in your feet to give the podiatrist. This record can help them make a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

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