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Foot Numbness Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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Last updated October 14, 2021

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Numbness in the feet can be caused from trauma from an injury or nerve damage to any part of the leg that may affect your feet. Other causes of feet numbness include restless leg syndrome, sciatica, or tarsal tunnel syndrome. Read below for more information on causes and treatment options.

Foot numbness quiz

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Foot numbness symptoms

What did you feel when you took that last step? If you didn't feel anything, you're probably not levitating, and you may have a case of foot numbness. Aside from being disorienting and uncomfortable, foot numbness can be a sign of significant health issues.

While the foot in itself is certainly prone to injury, foot numbness is often accompanied by other symptoms of the feet, legs, and body. Given the diverse list of potential causes, foot numbness symptoms can easily be a one-time event. Regardless, the loss of sensation in any part of the body, including the foot, is not normal and foot numbness symptoms should be monitored.

Common characteristics of foot numbness

Foot numbness symptoms include:

  • Discomfort while standing or walking
  • Weakness in the foot
  • Loss of feeling in the foot
  • Tingling or reduced sensation in the foot
  • Pain in the foot and toes

The bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles of the foot work in concert to help give us mobility and are strongly linked to the rest of the body. Foot numbness is often not simply a localized issue with the foot, but tied to a larger issue of the body.

The symptoms surrounding foot numbness are just a piece of a larger puzzle that, once solved, may reveal a larger underlying issue. Several medical issues express themselves through foot numbness.

What causes foot numbness?

The foot withstands its fair share of bumps and bruises, but a traumatic event is only one of several potential causes of foot numbness. Numbness in the foot may not even be the result of an issue with the foot itself and could be caused by an issue found throughout the body or from trauma to a part of the leg.

Environmental foot numbness causes

Environmental causes of foot numbness may be due to lifestyle habits or certain situations the feet have been exposed to.

  • Trauma: Injuries in the form of strains or breaks to the knee or shinbone can translate to numbness in the foot.
  • Nerve damage: Compressing the nerves in the foot can lead to a variety of unpleasant sensations, including numbness. Participating in athletics or exercising and wearing ill-fitting shoes are examples of activities that can put undue stress on and compress the nerves of the foot. Direct damage to nerves like the peroneal nerve can result in a similar outcome.
  • Vitamin imbalance: The body requires adequate amounts of certain vitamins to function properly. Deficiencies in vitamins like B12 can lead to foot numbness symptoms.

Disease-related foot numbness causes

Foot numbness can occur due to underlying diseases such as the following.

  • Metabolic: Chemical reactions in the body are disrupted by metabolic disorders like diabetes and fibromyalgia, potentially causing nerve disorders and numbness.
  • Autoimmune: Inflammatory diseases attack various parts of the body resulting in a variety of ailments including numbness. Celiac disease and Multiple Sclerosis are examples of such diseases.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Tarsal tunnel syndrome

The tarsal tunnel is a narrow space that lies on the inside of the ankle next to the ankle bones. Tarsal tunnel syndrome is a compression, or squeezing, on an important nerve called the posterior tibial nerve. This compression produces symptoms anywhere along the path of the nerve running from the inside of the ankle into the foot.

You should visit your primary care physician who will coordinate your care with a muscle and bone specialist (orthopedic surgeon). Tarsal tunnel syndrome is treated with pain medication, corticosteroid injections, stretching, icing, physical therapy, and also special orthotic inserts for shoes.

Sciatica

Sciatica is a general term describing any shooting leg pain that begins at the spine and travels down the outside of the leg. It is also called pinched nerve, lumbar radiculopathy, sciatic neuralgia, sciatic neuritis, or sciatic neuropathy.

By far the most common cause is a herniated or "slipped" disc in the lower spine. This means some of the cushioning material inside the disc has been forced outward and is pressing on a nerve root. Spasms of the piriformis muscle around the sciatic nerve, as well as the narrowing of the spinal canal called spinal stenosis, can also cause sciatica.

Symptoms include shooting leg pain that begins suddenly or develops gradually. There may be weakness, numbness, and a pins-and-needles sensation. In severe cases, there may be difficulty moving the foot or bending the knee.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and simple leg-raise tests.

Treatment involves physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and muscle relaxants. In some cases, corticosteroid spinal injections and surgery may be tried. Massage and acupuncture are also sometimes helpful.

Foot numbness quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your numbness.

Take foot numbness quiz

Restless legs syndrome (RLS)

Restless Legs Syndrome, also called RLS or Willis-Ekbom Disease, is a neurologic and sensory disorder. It causes uncomfortable sensations in the legs that are only relieved by walking or by moving the legs.

The cause is not in the legs but in the brain. One theory is low levels of iron in the brain.

RLS may be hereditary. It is more common in women than in men, especially in middle age. It may get more severe as the person gets older.

Symptoms may happen only a few times a week and are usually worse at night.

There will be an irresistible urge to move the legs in order to relieve the uncomfortable sensations; difficulty sleeping, with daytime exhaustion and inability to concentrate; and sometimes depression and anxiety due to the effect on quality of life.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination. Blood tests and sleep studies may be done.

Treatment involves first addressing any underlying medical condition, such as iron deficiency. In some cases, anti-seizure medications can be helpful.

Morton neuroma

Morton neuroma, also called by the older name Morton's neuroma, is a thickening of fibrous tissue in the ball of the foot. This tissue encapsulates the nerve leading to the third and fourth toes.

It is not actually a tumor of the nerve, as the name suggests. The thickening is caused by years of trauma, irritation, and/or compression to the feet. High-heeled shoes, especially if narrow or tight, are a common cause. The condition is most often seen in women over age 45.

Symptoms include burning pain in the ball of the foot, especially with walking or running. The condition will not heal on its own and can lead to chronic foot pain.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination of the foot with simple range of motion exercises, and sometimes x-ray.

Treatment includes changing to better-fitting shoes that do not compress the nerve; using orthotics in the shoes to take more pressure off of the nerve; and in some cases the use of corticosteroid injections.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: foot numbness, pain in the sole of the foot, pain when touching the foot, pain in both feet, foot injury

Urgency: Self-treatment

Low calcium level

Hypocalcemia is a condition where there is not enough calcium in the blood. Calcium is a mineral contained in the blood and helps the heart and other muscles function properly. It is also needed to maintain healthy teeth and bones. Low calcium levels can cause bones to become brittle and more easily fractured. Parathyroid issues and vitamin D deficiency are common causes of this condition.

You should consider visiting a medical professional to discuss your symptoms. Low calcium levels can be evaluated with a review of your symptoms and a blood test. Once diagnosed, treatment depends on the cause of your low calcium levels.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, shortness of breath, irritability, general numbness, tingling foot

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Folate (vitamin) deficiency

Folic acid (folate) is a vitamin that is needed to make new cells in the body, including red blood cells which carry oxygen through the blood and into various tissues throughout the body. Folate deficiency refers to a condition when there is not enough folic acid in the body, and can lead to symptoms such as tiredness, low energy, faintness, and difficulty breathing.

You can safely treat this condition on your own by taking a tablet of folic acid (folate) each day. Folic acid is also naturally occurring in foods such as spinach, sprouts, broccoli, green beans, peas, chickpeas, brown rice, kidney, liver, and potatoes. Eating more of these foods can help with symptoms as well.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, irritability, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea

Symptoms that never occur with folate (vitamin) deficiency: abdominal swelling

Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a set of chronic symptoms that include ongoing fatigue, diffuse tenderness to touch, musculoskeletal pain, and usually some degree of depression.

The cause is not known. When fibromyalgia appears, it is usually after a stressful physical or emotional event such as an automobile accident or a divorce. It may include a genetic component where the person experiences normal sensation as pain.

Almost 90% of fibromyalgia sufferers are women. Anyone with rheumatic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, may be more prone to fibromyalgia.

Poor sleep is often a symptom, along with foggy thinking, headaches, painful menstrual periods, and increased sensitivity to heat, cold, bright lights, and loud noises.

There is no standard test for fibromyalgia. The diagnosis is usually made when the above symptoms go on for three months or more with no apparent cause.

Fibromyalgia does not go away on its own but does not get worse, either.

Treatment involves easing symptoms and improving the patient's quality of life through pain medications, exercise, improved diet, and help with managing stressful situations.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, arthralgias or myalgias, anxiety, depressed mood, headache

Symptoms that always occur with fibromyalgia: arthralgias or myalgias

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Diabetic neuropathy

Diabetic peripheral neuropathy is the damage done to nerve fibers in the extremities by abnormally high blood sugar. Anyone with diabetes is at risk for peripheral neuropathy, especially if the person is overweight and/or a smoker.

Symptom include pain, numbness, and burning in the hands, arms, feet, and legs; muscle weakness; loss of balance and coordination; and infections, deformities, and pain in the bones and joints of the feet.

Peripheral neuropathy can develop very serious complications, since the high blood glucose prevents any infection or damage from healing as it should. This can lead to ulcerated sores, gangrene, and amputation. For this reason, signs of peripheral neuropathy are considered a medical emergency and the person should see a medical provider as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through sensitivity tests and nerve conduction studies.

There is no cure for diabetic neuropathy, but the symptoms can be managed in order to slow the disease and help restore function. Treatment will include lifestyle improvements and the use of pain medication.

Chronic idiopathic peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy refers to the feeling of numbness, tingling, and pins-and-needles sensation in the feet. Idiopathic means the cause is not known, and chronic means the condition is ongoing without getting better or worse.

The condition is most often found in people over age 60. Idiopathic neuropathy has no known cause.

Symptoms include uncomfortable numbness and tingling in the feet; difficulty standing or walking due to pain and lack of normal sensitivity; and weakness and cramping in the muscles of the feet and ankles.

Peripheral neuropathy can greatly interfere with quality of life, so a medical provider should be seen in order to treat the symptoms and reduce the discomfort.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests to rule out other conditions; and neurologic and muscle studies such as electromyography.

Treatment involves over-the-counter pain relievers; prescription pain relievers to manage more severe pain; physical therapy and safety measures to compensate for loss of sensation in the feet; and therapeutic footwear to help with balance and walking.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: distal numbness, muscle aches, joint stiffness, numbness on both sides of body, loss of muscle mass

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Chemotherapy-induced nerve damage

Chemotherapy has many effects on the body. Some types of chemotherapy can cause irritation of the nerves in ones hands and feet, resulting in symptoms like pain, numbness or tingling.

You should discuss your symptoms with your oncologist.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: muscle aches, distal numbness, pain in both hands, pain in both feet, numbness

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Foot numbness treatments and relief

Ultimately, foot numbness is not normal and should not be ignored. Fortunately, there are several options for treatment, but, with such a wide range of causes, treatments can vary greatly. There is no "one size fits all" treatment, but relief is often available through a variety of measures.

When to see a doctor for foot numbness

Home remedies may be appropriate, but it is important to contact your doctor if you experience the following:

  • Significant trauma to the leg, knee, or foot
  • Ongoing or recurring numbness
  • Other conditions: If you know you have diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or fibromyalgia

If the foot numbness symptoms seem to be related to a particular event that is minor and easily identifiable, then taking steps at home to minimize the issue may be sufficient. If, however, the foot numbness is unexplainable or associated with other symptoms, then advanced treatments may be required.

Foot numbness quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your numbness.

Take foot numbness quiz

At-home foot numbness treatments

The following remedies can help address your foot numbness symptoms at home.

  • Rest, elevation, and ice: Simple, at-home steps like these can help relieve numbness from isolated, minor incidents. Wearing appropriate footwear and minimizing athletic activity can also help reduce foot numbness symptoms.
  • Medications: Medicines such as NSAIDs or steroids can reduce inflammation and help minimize numbness.
  • Balanced diet: Maintaining a proper diet is a critical step to ensure appropriate vitamin intake. Adhering to a gluten-free diet will help control the effects of Celiac disease.

Professional foot numbness treatments

Treatments that can be recommended by your physician include the following.

  • Physical therapy: Working with a qualified specialist can help prevent further nerve damage and reduce numbness. Low impact exercise such as swimming is often recommended.
  • Surgical procedures: Operative procedures may be required for significant trauma to the knee, shin, or foot.

Even if your foot numbness symptoms appear to dissipate on their own, it is important to remember that they happen for a reason. Maybe the cure is simply avoiding the tight shoes you wore last night, but more complex conditions could be influencing your foot numbness, so it is important to seek help from a medical professional if necessary.

FAQs about foot numbness

Can sciatica cause numbness in the feet?

The sciatic nerve begins in the lower back and extends through the leg to the foot. Damage to the sciatic nerve, either through trauma or extended pressure from body positioning, can result in sciatica and a numbing sensation in the foot. Treatments will likely be designed to improve mobility and limit stress.

Is my diabetes causing foot numbness?

Diabetes affects the body in a variety of ways and can trigger several nerve disorders. As time with the disease extends or with poor sugar (glycemic) control, nerve damage throughout the body can develop, causing neuropathy, and leads to numbing of the foot [6, 9]. Nerve disorders may result in no symptoms at all or affect any of the extremities or organ systems.

What causes numbness on the top of the foot?

The likely culprit is nerve damage. When the peroneal nerve, which is a branch of the sciatic nerve, is damaged, the foot can feel numb or tingly. Damage is commonly caused by trauma to the leg or knee or from poor body positioning such as crossing the legs or sleep positions that put pressure on the knee.

How do you improve circulation in your feet?

There are several at-home steps that can help improve circulation. Elevating and stretching the foot are two easily followed options. Improving overall health by stopping smoking, performing low impact exercise (such as swimming) and maintaining healthy levels of blood pressure and cholesterol can also help.

Why do my feet suddenly go numb?

Sudden foot numbness is often caused by compression of the nerves or poor circulation. Wearing ill-fitting shoes, for example, can put strain on the joints and nerves of the foot. Certain diseases, such as diabetes, damage nerves as well. Crossing your legs and other body positions that limit blood flow lead to numbness.

Questions your doctor may ask about foot numbness

  • Have you ever been diagnosed with a psychiatric issue, such as depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, or anxiety disorder?
  • While lying down on a firm surface, keep both legs straight. Have a friend slowly raise one leg at a time by lifting your ankle into the air. Do you have pain in that leg before fully raising it to a perpendicular position? (This is called the straight leg test.)
  • Do any of your body parts (e.g., toes, hands, ears) feel cold?
  • Are you having any difficulty walking?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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