Have you ever felt numbness in the feet?
Have you ever wondered why you feel like there are ants crawling under your foot? Ever felt a burning or pricking pain in the soles of your feet?
Ever wondered – Why do my feet feel numb and tingly?
If you have, then you may be suffering from a condition called ”neuropathy”.
Our body has millions of nerves in it. These nerves are responsible for our experience of various sensations. These sensations include hot or cold, soft or hard and more importantly, pain.
There are many reasons why our nerves may not do the job they are supposed to do. When the nerves misbehave and start creating odd sensations, doctors like to call it neuropathy.
So what is neuropathy and why does it occur? Let’s take a closer look.
The Human Nerve Fiber
Before I dive into why are experiencing numbness in feet, let me tell you a little bit about how the nerves in our body work.
The nerves are primarily made of a unit called ‘neuron’. Each of these neurons is linked end-to-end like a train track.
Our nerves emerge either from the brain or the spinal cord. Each neuron has a head and a tail.
This is depicted in the picture below.
I will not go into too much detail regarding the nerve fiber. However, it is worthwhile knowing that there are 3 main types of nerve fibers.
- Sensory – This is responsible for the sensations that we feel. This includes hot and cold, pain, softness, vibration etc.
- Motor – These nerves are responsible for movements. They supply muscle groups in the body. In a stroke, the motor nerves are affected, leading to muscle paralysis.
- Autonomic – This group of nerve fibers is responsible to maintain blood pressure, temperature regulation, and many such functions. The autonomic nervous system is affected in diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and other similar conditions.
Let’s move on to why you have numbness in the feet.
Causes Of Numbness In The Feet
The tingling sensation you are experiencing in your feet is related to the poor function of sensory nerves. There are many reasons why this may occur, and below are the common reasons.
I have only discussed the top 3 here, as these are the most important.
Probably one of the most common reasons why your feet are numb is diabetes.
In practice, I have encountered numerous patients complain of odd sensations in their feet, only to have their blood sugar checked and for them to have diabetes.
As you will very well know, diabetes mellitus is a clinical condition where the glucose levels in the bloodstream are greatly increased. It can lead to a number of complications, affecting the heart, eyes, kidneys, brain, and nerves.
This condition where diabetes affects the nerve fibers in the feet is called diabetic peripheral neuropathy.
It is important to note that diabetes just does not affect the nerves in the feet. It can also affect the hands as well.
The numbness that is seen in the hands and the feet is sometimes called ‘glove and stocking’ anesthesia.
The symptoms of diabetic peripheral neuropathy are generally worse at night. Other than numbness in the feet and hands, other symptoms may also be seen.
I have listed these in the table below.
There are other ways that diabetes can affect the nerves in your body. I will discuss this in another article, another day as it is a topic on its own.
But how does diabetes affect how nerves function?
It is believed to be a complex process. However, in simple terms, the high blood sugars irritate the lining of the nerves that are responsible for electrical conduction.
Not just that – diabetes also affects the small blood vessels that supply blood to the nerves. This lowers the supply of vital oxygen and nutrients to the nerves, thus affecting their function.
Those who have uncontrolled sugars, those who smoke and those who are overweight are at a greater risk of developing this problem.
The problem with diabetic peripheral neuropathy is that the numbness in the feet can lead to loss of perception of injury. Injured feet or toes can get infected, and if not treated soon can lead to gangrene.
Preventing Diabetic Neuropathy
By keeping sugar levels under control through diet, exercise and weight loss (along with medicines of course), the chances of developing the problem can be reduced.
Stopping smoking and lowering body weight can help. Keep your feet protected at all times by wearing the right footwear.
However, despite all this, numbness in the feet from diabetes may still develop and can be treated with medication.
Alcohol intake is common in our country. While most of us enjoy it once in a while at social gatherings, some, unfortunately, get addicted to the stuff.
Alcoholic peripheral neuropathy is seen in people who drink alcohol in large quantities over prolonged periods of time.
How does alcohol affect the nerves?
Some experts believe that the alcohol itself can irritate nerve fibers. Some believe that the compound acetaldehyde, that is generated in the body from the breakdown of alcohol can lead to it.
Other experts believe that excess alcohol consumption can lead to the loss of vitamins, especially thiamine, in the blood. This vitamin is essential to maintain the health of the nerves within our body.
Low thiamine levels can lead to alcoholic neuropathy, which in turn leads to numbness in the feet.
Another school of thought is that high alcohol intake leads to the generation of harmful free radicals that can damage the nerve fibers.
Whatever the mechanism, all you need to know is that long-term consumption of excessive alcohol is harmful to health and to the nerves.
The symptoms of alcoholic peripheral neuropathy are similar to what I have described in diabetes. However, the most common symptoms include numbness in feet and altered sensation.
Treating Alcoholic Neuropathy
Total abstinence is advised. Patients may need vitamin supplements to restore the health of their nerves.
Unfortunately, some people sustain permanent damage to the nerves.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
This is a very common problem in our country. A large number of patients with numbness in the feet have vitamin B12 deficiency.
I have already spoken about how important vitamin B12 is and how it can affect the body elsewhere on this blog.
In a nutshell, vitamin B12 levels are low in people who are vegetarian or vegan. There are no vegetarian sources of this vitamin, and hence supplements will need to be taken.
This is what is needed if you have numbness in the feet from low vitamin B12 levels.
There are many other causes, but writing about them will make this article a little drab and probably too complicated.
Disc prolapse is a common cause of numbness in the toes and feet and can be easily investigated with an x-ray or MRI scan of the spine.
Low blood supply to the leg from vascular disease or inflammation of the blood vessels (vasculitis) can also cause tingling and numbness.
Neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Guillain Barre syndrome and other such condition are also causes.
So there you have it – you now know why your feet are numb. If you are experiencing numbness in the feet, then make sure you visit your doctor about getting yourself tested.