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.
Typically, you walk around, shake it off–no big deal. But sometimes numbness in your legs can be due to a more pressing health concern.
Chances are, a numb leg isn’t a big deal. But you want to get to the bottom of that numbness so you can fix it. “The vast majority of numbness and tingling we see turns out to be nothing to worry about,” says 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 of the things numbness and tingling in your legs might mean.
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.
This is one of the most common reasons for numbness in your legs, and any number of things can cause it, 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. Some people with sciatica may experience leg numbness as well.
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,” says 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 and, in rare cases when the pinched nerve is also causing pain and weakness, Dr. Geraci says, surgery.
A herniated disk is one of the more frequent reasons for 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 what’s called a herniated, slipped, or ruptured disk. “If that jelly gets squeezed backwards, it can press a nerve and cause numbness and tingling,” Frese explains.
The smallest wrong move can send a disk out of whack, she adds. “We see this in a lot of people who bend over too much. Bending forward has the tendency to make the jelly go backwards.” Lifting something while hunched forward in that position is particularly risky, she says.
Many herniated disks can be treated with exercise, pain relievers, and cold compresses or ice. In extreme cases, you might need surgery.
When blood sugar goes uncontrolled for long periods of time in people with diabetes, sugar can build up and damage the nerves that transmit messages between the brain and spine and other parts of the body, including the legs.
There are more than 100 types of this nerve damage, called peripheral neuropathy. Diabetic neuropathy is the most common peripheral neuropathy simply because so many people have type 2 diabetes, says 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 every day to make sure no additional problems are developing; numbness can mean you may not notice nicks or cuts that could lead to dangerous infections.
Numbness in different parts of the body including the legs is one of the most common symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a condition in which the immune system attacks the sheath around nerve cells. Numbness can be the first sign indicating that something is wrong. It’s usually accompanied by other symptoms, like a tremor or changes in vision or speech.
MS numbness may be barely noticeable, or it can make it hard to walk and do other tasks.
No drugs specifically treat numbness from MS, but the symptoms usually come and go on their own. Sometimes steroids can make your legs feel normal again, but these drugs can’t be used for long periods of time.
Lupus is one of many autoimmune diseases that can cause peripheral neuropathy. Often this results in numbness in the hands and feet, but it can also affect the legs. Sjogren’s syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis can have the same effect.
The process is similar to that of a pinched nerve: Inflamed tissue impinges on the nerves, causing numbness, tingling, or other sensations.
This numbness can sometimes be relieved by treating the underlying condition, as well as by following healthy lifestyle advice like eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly.
“Treatment for neuropathy generally [addresses symptoms], but it doesn’t affect the underlying disease process,” says Dr. Geraci.
If you’re young, it’s unlikely your leg numbness is due to a stroke; strokes are more common in people over the age of 60. But they do happen in younger folks.
Regardless of your age, 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.
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 (PAD) occurs when narrowed arteries reduce blood flow to your arms and especially your legs. In addition to numbness and tingling, PAD can also make it painful to walk.
PAD is usually a red flag that you have atherosclerosis, a buildup of fatty deposits in your arteries. This could set you up for a number of other problems down the line, including a heart attack or stroke.
Quitting smoking, eating healthy foods, and exercising can stave off PAD and its complications. There are also medications to help if those aren’t enough.
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In rare cases, a tumor could be growing in a way that presses on a nerve, causing leg numbness and tingling.
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 doctor. “If you have numbness and tingling that doesn’t go away, you need to be seen,” Frese says. Even many less dire causes of leg numbness can be taken care of.