Everyone has experienced the sensation of “pins and needles” in their limbs at one point or another in their lives. It is a very common occurrence characterized by a sensation of tingling, pricking, burning or numbness in the extremities, commonly referred to as having a limb that has “fallen asleep.” Its medical term is paresthesia, and in most people it is a temporary condition. However, some people experience this feeling on a regular basis. This can be an indicator of several underlying medical conditions, some serious and some less so.
Pins and needles happens most often when prolonged pressure is applied to the arms or legs (such as when kneeling on the ground). This in turn applies pressure on the nerves and reduces the supply of blood to the limbs. The pressure and lack of blood inhibits the nerves from sending messages to the brain. Then when you change positions the pressure on the nerves is released and blood flow returns to normal. This results in messages from the nerves flooding the brain, causing the pricking and tingling sensation we’re all familiar with.
Chronic paresthesia is due to a problem with neuron function. There can be many causes for this, ranging from a vitamin deficiency to an autoimmune disease. It can also be caused by a pinched nerve or an injury to the nerves from disease or accident. Paresthesia is common in the elderly, who often have reduced circulation in conjunction with a tendency toward vitamin B12 deficiency. As B12 must be absorbed by the gut, its absorption becomes more difficult as we age and our digestive enzymes are not as strong as they once were.
Among other conditions that a pins and needles sensation may indicate are diabetes, alcoholism, compressed nerves, carpal tunnel syndrome, spinal disc herniation, menopause, heavy metal poisoning, anxiety disorder, fibromyalgia, chemotherapy, multiple sclerosis, a transient ischemic attack (TIA) and lupus.
The sensation of pins and needles usually goes away by itself, but if you find yourself experiencing paresthesia on a regular basis, consult with your physician. There are a range of different treatments, depending on the cause. A pinched nerve and carpal tunnel syndrome can often be effectively treated by a chiropractor. Vitamin B12 deficiency may be addressed through dietary changes, supplements or injections. Together, you and your doctor can decide upon the best course of treatment based on the specifics of your situation.