Limb Numbness: a Silent Danger

Aug 08
arm pain, leg pain, pinched nerves

I can understand why numbness doesn’t cause alarm in most people – after all, it only takes sitting in the wrong position for a few minutes for a hand or foot to fall asleep.  However, experiencing numbness and tingling in the limbs can lead to a much more serious situation.  I’m not speaking about permanent nerve damage (although that can be an issue for some) since any long term numbness will usually cause some distress and a subsequent doctor’s visit.  A greater issue is the secondary injury that can arise from the lack of feeling or use of a limb.  Case in point:  I have a patient (called “Alice” here, for privacy reasons) who has chronic inflammation in her pelvis, low back, and shoulders, resulting in frequent periodic numbness and tingling in both her arms and legs.  Since these episodes are frequent Alice treats numbness as an annoyance rather than treatment-worthy issue and does not usually come in for a treatment, opting instead to allow the numbness to recede on its own.  During a recent bout of numbness Alice, who exercises regularly, sprained her Achilles tendon and partially dislocated her Calcaneus (heel bone).  The reason for this serious injury is that the lack of feeling in her feet made for poor proprioception (the ability to sense the position of and strength being used by a body part), allowing her ankle to roll several times during exercise without her even feeling it.  She had no idea her ankle had rolled, or even that it was injured, until the next day when the numbness receded enough to allow her to feel the significant pain of the injury.  Alice has since admitted that this is not the first time this has happened; she has rolled her ankles in the past for the same reason, as well as receiving many cuts on her fingers during food preparation due to lack of feeling in her hands.

I bring up Alice in the hope that her situation will allow others to avoid her uncomfortable situation (at the current moment in time Alice has not been able to exercise for almost a month while her ankle heals) by seeking treatment for what may seem a minor annoyance.  Having numbness, tingling, or even aching pain in the arms or legs can be the sign of an impinged nerve near the spine or another joint.  If a nerve is pinched for an extended amount of time it will cease to send signals down its core; much the same as pinching a running hose will make the flow of water stop.  Nerve bundles are set up in a way that the nerves responsible for  feeling are wrapped protectively around the nerves responsible for moving which, in an evolutionary sense, is a plus for survival; after all, if faced with a dangerous situation the nerves used to move your muscles are more likely to keep you alive than those used to feel the world around you.  However, since none of us is in imminent danger of being eaten by a Saber-toothed Cat, this doesn’t mean a great deal to modern humans, and means that a pinched nerve provides the disservice of movement and weight bearing without proper positioning.

In the end, even though I am in the Chiropractic field I do understand that the average person cannot take endless breaks from life to visit the doctor’s office, and therefore give this advise:  pay attention to your body.  If you have any numbness or tingling in your limbs be very wary of exercise, especially those which are weight bearing or require shifting body weight or directions frequently.  If in doubt, swim.  If numbness or tingling lasts for more than 24 hours seeing a Chiropractor would be a wise idea, but not required.  If numbness or tingling has occurred within a week of a traumatic incident (such as a fall, sports injury, auto accident, etc) please see your Chiropractor right away, as it may be a sign of a more serious condition.