Numb feet are a common problem, characterised by a decrease or complete loss in sensation in the foot.
Often, foot numbness nothing to worry about and may be as simple as a slightly squashed nerve from sitting awkwardly. But in some cases, it can indicate a more serious underlying medical problem.
Numbness in the foot is often associated with other sensations, typically pain, a burning sensation and/or pins and needles (tingling or prickling sensation), collectively known as paraesthesia. It may occur in one or both feet depending on the underlying cause. Left untreated, it can progress to weakness and decreased control of foot movements.
Here, we will look at the most common causes of numb feet, how they present, how and why they occur and how to tell when it is serious.
Foot numbness develops when there is a communication problem in the nervous system. Sensory nerves receive stimulus such as pressure and temperature information and send electrochemical signals to the brain for interpretation. The brain then sends a corresponding signal back down to the nerve.
Damage to the nerve affects this cycle and numbness
in the foot usually develops when these signals are no longer produced.
Your body then loses the ability to feel sensory input such as
heat/cold and light/sharp pressure therefore feeling numb. The
sensation of pins and needles tends to occur when the signals are
The most common causes of numb toes and feet can be split into two categories, those caused by nerve damage and those caused by decreased blood supply. Let's have a look in more depth.
Numb feet often develop either after we have been sitting awkwardly for a while (e.g. sitting with our feet crossed underneath us) or when wearing tight fitting shoes. This is because the pressure on the nerves and surrounding blood vessels reduces the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the nerve.
The foot gradually “falls asleep” and we lose sensation. When we move, we realise we can no longer feel our foot. This is quickly replaced by intense, painful pins and needles as the nerve function restores. After a few minutes the foot numbness and pins and needles subside completely.
Damage to the nerves in the leg and foot are another common cause of
numb feet. Our nervous systems can be divided into two parts
Damage to the peripheral nervous system is known as peripheral neuropathy and affects how signals are transmitted from the nerves to the central nervous system, commonly causing foot numbness. There are a number of different causes of peripheral neuropathy including:
Peripheral neuropathy often presents with pain, weakness, altered balance and co-ordination, pins and needles and numb feet.
You can find out more about this cause of numb feet, including the symptoms and causes in the peripheral neuropathy section.
Problems in the spine that affect the nerves as they come out of the
spinal cord can cause numb feet. The two most common causes are:
You can find out more about slipped discs and spinal stenosis in the Foot Nerve Pain section.
If the blood flow to the foot is reduced, it can result in numb feet due to a lack of oxygen and nutrients reaching the nerves. This can affect how they generate and send impulses. The most common causes of this are:
There are a couple of other, rarer, causes of foot numbness:
If your numb feet are accompanied by any of the following symptoms, consult your doctor immediately:
Prompt treatment for numb feet is vital to prevent further or long-term damage. Failure to do so can lead to disability, paralysis, permanent symptoms of pain and numbness and in extreme cases, may require an amputation.
You can find out more about numb feet caused by nerve problems in the Nerve Pain section. If your foot numbness is also associated with a burning type pain, visit the Burning Foot Pain section to find out more.
Alternatively, if you want help working out what is causing your pain, visit the foot pain diagnosis section.
Page Last Updated: 09/28/22
Next Review Due: 09/28/24