The “pins and needles” effect

If you’ve ever had a foot or an arm “fall asleep”, then you’re familiar with the “pins and needles” sensation that ensues soon after you start moving your limb. People of all ages can experience pins and needles, although it becomes more common with age.


Sonia Chartier

02 October 2016

What causes the “pins and needles” sensation?

The sensation itself is the product of your brain as it interprets the information carried by the nerve cells. This uncomfortable feeling of numbness and tingling, knowns as paresthesia, is caused when there’s a functional disturbance to the way nerve cells carry this sensory information to the spinal cord and brain. Think of it as a sending a text message that’s been edited by autocorrect to something that makes no sense at all.

Now, the other question is, what causes these functional disturbances? One common cause is cutting off the blood supply to the limb, or even compressing the underlying sensory nerves (as when you sit on your leg; or the seat is pressing hard against your buttocks, which sends that very annoying sensation down your leg). More severe conditions that lead to serious parenthesis include carpal tunnel syndrome, and spinal column arthritis.

Short list of conditions that can present with “pins and needles”

  • diabetes
  • hypothyroidism
  • alcoholism
  • vitamin B12 (cobalamin) deficiency (from diet, medication, malabsorption)
  • High doses of vitamin B6
  • lupus (SLE)
  • heavy metal toxicity (e.g. lead, mercury)
  • certain medications (e.g. chemotherapy agents)
  • Lyme disease
  • HIV
  • leprosy (rare in Canada)
  • multiple sclerosis
  • stroke, or transient ischemic attack
  • shingles

Is it mainly in hands and feet? 

Not necessarily! One reason “pins and needles” are common to your hands and feet is because it’s very easy to cut the blood supply (or compress underlying nerves) to your limbs. Again, if you’ve been sitting down, or cross-legged, for a while, chances are you’ll experience numbness and tingling down your compressed/crossed leg. The same holds true if you’ve fallen asleep on your arm before.

Another reason is that your limbs have smaller blood vessels and many more sensory nerves than larger parts of the body (your fingertips can sense the most minute sensory changes). However, depending on the condition, paresthesia can be produced in other parts of the body. For example, people who get cold sores can experience a tingling sensation on their lips before it breaks out—the face (especially lips) is very sensitive as well. People unfortunate enough to experience shingles can feel it on their torso, shoulder, or back.

How can this feeling be treated? 

Treatment of “pins and needles” depends on the root cause.

If your arm or leg has “fallen asleep”, then you may want to focus on restoring blood flow to the area (and not compressing it); massaging or stretching could help reduce the duration of this sensation.

It is important to go in for your annual check-up with a regulated health care provider who can order lab work. In this way, they can investigate your B12 levels and thyroid status, as well as other markers of health and disease (e.g. blood sugar levels), and check up on any side effects of medication.

People undergoing chemotherapy should speak with their oncologist about their options, but it may be worth requesting a free consultation with a naturopathic physician with FABNO qualifications.

If you’re concerned about low B12 status, a good B-complex should be considered; especially if you’re vegetarian, has been on medication for heartburn, or stomach ulcers, as well as metformin. Otherwise, animal products such as eggs are a very good source of B12.

Acupuncture may also be beneficial in reducing sensory nerve dysfunction.

Speak with a licensed naturopathic doctor about acupuncture and B12 shots options.