That ‘Pins and Needles’ Feeling You Get When a Limb Falls Asleep Is the Brain’s Cry for Help

Taking breaks from a busy day at your desk is hard. But eventually, a grumbling stomach and heavy legs that feel like TV static looks are bound to forcibly eject you from your chair. After a walk and a carry-out salad, you’re smooth sailing, but do you ever wonder why that annoying pins and needles sensation tends to plague your limbs in the first place?

Medically called paresthesia, “pins and needles” is an odd phenomenon everyone has experienced at some point. Ahead, a doctor explains causes, symptoms, treatments, and when to seek professional help if the weird feeling persists.

What causes pins and needles?

The prickly pins and needles feeling most commonly shows up in hands, arms, legs, or feet, otherwise known as a limb “falling asleep.” Causes of the sensation, according to Dr. Pescatore, include:

Poor circulation

“Limbs fall asleep partly due to poor circulation,” explains Fred Pescatore, M.D., a family physician based in New York City. Our nerves receive oxygen and nutrients through blood vessels, ensuring the right amount of blood reaches our organs, he adds. And when a limb goes without movement for an extended period, blood flow is inhibited, resulting in that pins and needles feeling.


“A common cause can be pressure on a specific part of arms or legs, which can cause compression of nerves,” Dr. Pescatore says. Think: Sleeping in one position for most of the night, sitting with your legs crossed, or (we’ve all done it!) endlessly doom scrolling on the toilet.

“When our nerves or blood vessels are compressed, like when we sit cross-legged, it can compromise the ability of the nerve to transmit impulses back to the central nervous system,” Pescatore adds.

Like a kink in a water hose, oxygen and blood supply gets disrupted. And in response, the brain raises red flags in the form of pain and discomfort. “The brain interprets these abnormal signals as the pins and needles sensation we feel,” Pescatore says.

Medical conditions

In rare situations, Dr. Pescatore says frequent pins and needles may indicate an underlying condition such as nerve damage (i.e. a pinched nerve, carpal tunnel syndrome, or sciatica), diabetes, and alcohol abuse. They can also be a symptom of stroke, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological conditions, per the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

What does pins and needles feel like?

The name is pretty self-explanatory, but pins and needles symptoms include the feeling of numbness, tingling, skin crawling, or itching, according to the NINDS. Usually, the feeling quickly goes away after external pressure to the affected area is relieved.

How do you stop or treat pins and needles?

“Changing positions can usually restore normal feeling, as the nerves start sending messages to the brain and spinal cord again,” explains Dr. Pescatore. If the limb was stationary for a good bit, some more intentional activity may be necessary to restore circulation.

“Stand up. Shake your arms or legs to get the blood flowing. That may initially magnify the pins and needles sensation, but it gets better from there,” adds Pescatore. “Move around. Stretch! If you are feeling the sensation in your legs or feet, change your shoes. Wiggle your toes and spread your fingers in and out. This can help bring back blood flow and ease the nerves. If pins and needles persist, try a warm compress over the area to promote circulation.”

When should I be worried about pins and needles?

The occasional case of pins and needles is totally normal, especially if it surfaces after prolonged time without movement. However, persistent pins and needles “may be a sign of more serious conditions, such as nerve injury and should prompt a visit to your doctor,” Pescatore advises.

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