A tingling sensation can occur with numerous medical conditions. Any changes to nerve function can lead to unusual sensations, including tingling, burning, pins-and-needles, itchiness and numbness. It is common to experience a combination of these sensations. Nerve impingement, metabolic conditions, blood flow disturbances, autoimmune diseases, infections and toxins are among the possible culprits for tingling sensations. Determining the cause can be challenging. In addition to a thorough physical examination, diagnostic testing is often needed for an accurate diagnosis.
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Nerves run throughout the body, carrying messages to and from the brain and spinal cord. Nerve impingement occurs when something compresses a nerve and interferes with its function. For example, in carpal tunnel syndrome, a nerve that travels through the wrist is compressed, resulting in hand tingling, numbness or pain. Herniated discs in the spine, tight muscles and tumors can compress nerves and lead to tingling in various areas of the body. Prolonged sitting, standing or crossing your legs can cause temporary tingling sensations.
Persistently high blood sugar levels due to diabetes often leads to nerve damage over time. This condition, known as diabetic neuropathy, commonly triggers numbness, tingling and pain. Through a different mechanism, alcoholism can also cause neuropathy with tingling or numbness. Vitamin B12 deficiency can also result in tingling sensations, as can an underactive thyroid gland. Metabolic conditions can result in tingling anywhere in the body, although the feet and hands are most commonly affected.
Autoimmune diseases are illnesses in which the body confuses its own cells for something harmful and attacks. The resulting inflammation can sometimes cause nerve injury and tingling sensations. Autoimmune diseases are systemic, meaning they affect the entire body. Therefore, tingling can be felt anywhere in the body, depending on the specific nerves affected. Common autoimmune diseases that may cause tingling include multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Insufficient blood supply to any area of the body can lead to sensation changes, including tingling. Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) occurs when plaque forms in the arteries leading to decreased blood flow. PAD most commonly affects the legs, causing tingling and pain. With thoracic outlet syndrome, blood vessels that travel to the shoulders, arms and hands are compromised, leading to altered sensation.
Raynaud phenomenon involves spasms of the blood vessels in the fingers and toes, typically triggered by cool temperature. The resulting reduction in blood flow leads to numbness and tingling. Strokes and transient ischemic attacks, often called mini-strokes, can result in tingling sensations anywhere in the body due to blood flow obstruction in the brain.
Certain types of infections can directly or indirectly affect the nerves, causing tingling. Viral infections commonly associated with tingling sensations include HIV, genital herpes, cold sores and shingles. People with Lyme disease -- a bacterial infection spread by ticks -- may experience nerve involvement with tingling or pain as a late complication of the illness. Although less common, syphilis, leprosy and rabies can also cause neuropathy and tingling.
Medications and Poisons
Medications and poisons can directly damage nerves, leading to toxic neuropathy and tingling. Poisons associated with toxic neuropathy include carbon monoxide, arsenic and lead. Inhaling aerosols as intoxicants can also damage nerves. Certain chemotherapy medications can lead to neuropathy, including cisplatin (Platinol), carboplatin, doctaxel (Taxotere) and paclitaxel (Taxol). Some antiviral medications used to treat HIV/AIDS can cause similar nerve symptoms, and other medicines can sometimes cause tingling as a side effect as well.
Seek immediate medical attention if you experience dizziness, slurred speech, sudden weakness, mental confusion, severe headache, fever or a rash in addition to tingling symptoms. These symptoms could indicate a serious, potentially life-threatening medical condition.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.