If your feet go numb when walking or during any other type of exercise, it can feel a bit concerning. Luckily, it's fairly common and can be helped by making a few adjustments.
"Foot numbness during exercise usually isn't a sign of something serious," says physical therapist Dave Candy, PT, DPT, who is a board-certified specialist in orthopedic physical therapy and owner of More 4 Life physical therapy clinic.
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"However, it is a warning sign that you should change something with your exercise before it does become a more serious problem." Below are some potential causes — and treatment — for numbness in feet during exercises like cycling, weightlifting and group workout classes.
“In most cases, numbness during exercise is not a sign of something serious. However, if the numbness is accompanied by pain, weakness, or other neurological symptoms, it could be a sign of a more serious condition, and you should seek medical attention immediately,” says Kellie K. Middleton, MD, an Atlanta-based orthopedic surgeon.
“If you have any underlying medical conditions that could contribute to poor circulation (such as diabetes), be sure to stay on top of your condition and see your physician regularly.”
Causes of Foot Numbness While Exercising
Wondering why your feet go numb when you walk or engage in another form of physical activity? Whether you're walking, running, cycling or lifting weights, foot numbness during exercise is commonly caused by the following factors, says board-certified podiatrist Nelya Lobkova, DPM, founder of Step Up Footcare in New York City.
"Most commonly, it is due to compartment syndrome, neuroma or a localized nerve impingement known as neuropraxia," she says. Let's break each one of those down.
1. Nerve Impingement or Neuropraxia
This technical-sounding condition has a fairly simple fix.
"One way the feet can go numb during exercising is by tying the shoelaces too tight, causing the nerves over the top of the foot to impinge. This causes neuropraxia, a temporary nerve injury to the superficial peroneal nerve," Dr. Lobkova says.
"In this case, the numbness has not caused permanent damage to the nerve, and it is reversible once the shoe laces are loosened. In practice, I find this often affects athletes who have instability in the ankle and tie the laces too tight to feel supported in the shoes."
What to Do
If you find yourself lacing and tying your shoelaces tight to improve foot stability, loosen up your laces and start incorporating ankle and foot strengthening into your routine.
If you have numbness on the ball of your foot with exercise, it could be a neuroma.
"Another cause of foot numbness during exercise is neuroma formation — or the scarring of the nerve roots between the metatarsal bones in the ball of the foot," Dr. Lobkova says. "This results in numbness concentrating in the ball of the foot, instead of the entire foot."
"In practice, I find this impacts many cyclists due to improper clip placement on the bike shoe or other mechanical issues. However, it can happen during other exercise activities as well," she says.
What to Do
According to a May-June 2020 review in the Journal of Clinical Orthopaedics and Trauma, treatment for this is making adjustments to your bike as needed (more on that below), orthotics (often a metatarsal bar with shoes with a wide toe box), corticosteroid injections or, in more serious cases, surgery may be needed.
3. Compartment Syndrome
Foot numbness with exercise can also be caused by compartment syndrome, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
"The tendon sheaths in the feet and legs expand from overuse and push up against the nerve and veins in the legs causing numbness," Dr. Lobkova says. If this compression affects the tibial nerve, you'll feel numbness in the bottom of the foot. If it affects the peroneal nerve, you will feel numbness on the top of the foot.
What to Do
“When compartment syndrome occurs, stop exercising immediately, as this can be an emergency if compartment pressures get too high,” Dr. Lobkova says.
If you have had a recent leg or foot injury, such as a fracture or contusion, and experience numbness with exercise, then this could be acute compartment syndrome, which requires emergency treatment.
If you have not had a recent injury and the numbness goes away when you stop exercising, then you probably have chronic compartment syndrome, which is much less serious. Either way, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor.
4. Fat Pad Atrophy
"People who have fat pad atrophy are at higher risk as well," Dr. Lobkova says. "Typically, women over 50 are at risk for fat pad atrophy, which involves the loss of the natural fatty pad in the ball of the feet."
"The loss of cushioning causes a lower threshold for stress on the ball of the foot, causing stress fracture or neuroma, which both cause numbness in the feet."
What to Do
Dr. Lobkova says wearing cushioned shoes can provide additional padding and shock absorption to resolve the numbness.
Regardless of the type of exercise, the cause of foot numbness while working out is the same. However, there are exercise-specific modifications you can make to help ease and prevent your symptoms.
Foot Numbness While Cycling
Whether you ride for long distances on the road or use a stationary bike, feeling numb feet while cycling is a common complaint.
"The most common cause of numbness during cycling is from compression of the sciatic nerve on the bike seat," Candy says.
If you bike for long distances while leaning over the handlebars to be more aerodynamic, the sustained bending position can irritate the nerve roots in your lower back. Alternatively, the cause could be the nerves in your feet. Dr. Middleton says direct pressure on the nerves in the feet from the pedals is very common.
What to Do
“Experimenting with different shaped seats, as well as a softer seat, may help take compression off of the sciatic nerve,” Candy says. You can also get a bike fitting from a professional to make sure your bike is the right fit for your body.
If you find yourself hunched over the handlebars, riding in a slightly more upright position or switching to a recumbent bike may also help better support your back and put less pressure on your buttocks and sciatic nerve.
And if the pain is coming from the nerves in your feet, “this can be alleviated by using a wider pedal or by adjusting the cleats so that they are not too far forward,” Dr. Middleton says.
Foot Numbness While Weightlifting
From increasing your metabolism to keeping your bones strong, weightlifting has many benefits. If you're experiencing foot numbness while lifting weights, however, you need to make some adjustments.
"The most likely cause of foot numbness while weightlifting is the nerve roots in the lower back, particularly the L5 or S1 nerve roots from your lower back," Candy says.
"It's common for weightlifters to hyperextend their spine at their lower back when doing exercises like squats, power cleans or overhead presses," he says. "This narrows the spaces where the nerve roots exit the spine. If you add compression from lifting weights on top of that, it further narrows the spaces between your vertebrae."
What to Do
The most important strategy is to maintain proper form while lifting.
“Keep your lower back in a neutral position when lifting weights — not too bent, but not too arched either," Candy says. "Additionally, lightening the weights that you're using can help as that adds less compression to your spine.”
Dr. Middleton adds that it's important to take breaks often to let your circulatory system catch up to avoid foot numbness.
“When you are lifting weights, your muscles need more oxygen and blood flow," she says. "If your circulatory system is not working properly, it can cause your feet to go numb.”
Foot Numbness on the Elliptical
The elliptical machine is a low-impact form of exercise and a great way to get in a cardio workout while limiting the stress on your joints. However, some people may find that their feet go numb on the elliptical.
"Foot numbness when using an elliptical may come either from the nerve roots in the lower back — or from your feet," Candy says.
"If you have degenerative disc disease or spinal stenosis, the spaces where the nerves to your legs come out of your spine get narrower. Upright positions like using an elliptical further narrow these spaces."
Another explanation? "Your plantar nerves in your feet can also cause foot numbness when using an elliptical, especially if you have flat feet or your feet overpronate," he says. "This is a much more common problem during high-impact exercise, such as running."
What to Do
"Leaning slightly forward while using the elliptical or using legs only (no arms) and leaning over the console in the front of the elliptical may help relieve pressure on the nerve roots in your lower back,” Candy says.
"Or if your plantar nerves are the problem, using orthotics or arch supports while exercising may help.”
Foot Numbness in a Group Exercise Class
Whether it's a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) group class, yoga or CrossFit, consider all the things mentioned above to find the root cause of what is causing your feet to go numb.
What to Do
Make sure you're wearing cushioned shoes and that the shoelaces aren’t too tight. Drink plenty of water and take rest breaks as needed.
If you're lifting weights or doing exercises like box jumps or burpees, make sure you have the proper form to avoid putting stress on your back that can cause foot numbness.
Lastly, Dr. Lobkova says you should avoid exercising barefoot, with the exception of low-impact workouts like yoga or Pilates.
“Those performing high-impact exercise barefoot, where there is three times the body weight on our feet, are at higher risk for developing numbness in the feet while exercising,” she says.
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