We all know what this feels like. We wake up with our feet numb and tingly, sometimes even painful, and it can take several minutes to come back to normal sensation once we’ve moved out of the position that caused the numbness in the first place. And we all know how uncomfortable this can feel until things normalize!
This is an instance where numbness occurs or the foot “falls asleep” and then goes back to normal. However, there are many conditions and reasons why a person’s foot/feet can stay numb, either permanently or semi-permanently. If this is you, keep reading! In this article, we are going to discuss why foot numbness happens, and what we can do to improve it!
Why are My Feet Numb?
Feet can experience feelings of numbness for many different reasons, and there are varying degrees of numbness that one can experience.
Reasons for foot numbness include, but are not limited to:
Diabetes or pre-diabetes, causing a condition called ‘peripheral neuropathy’
Cerebrovascular accident, also known as ‘stroke’
Nerve entrapment – a nerve gets ‘caught’ somewhere along the line, causing pressure
Poor blood supply to the nervous system
Traumatic injury to the nervous system, such as a crush injury
Foot numbness can range from mild to severe, and anywhere in between. Some people experience numbness that comes and goes intermittently, and some experience numbness that is constant and can be severe enough to impair their ability to walk or balance. A mild nerve injury, called neurapraxia, may have the ability to recover completely and feels like a mild sensation of numbness. These are often compression injuries, and once the pressure is relieved, the sensation and pain subside. In more severe injuries, called axonotmesis and neurotmesis, the injury to the actual nerve sheath and body is more severe and may take significantly longer to recover from. In some cases, the damage is so severe that numbness and tingling are permanent and may require surgery to heal from. (1)
Appreciate the many nerves that innervate our foot.
Depending on the severity of the injury, it is important to know that nerves sometimes only regenerate up to 1mm per day! That is really really slow, and the nerves are really long! This is why sometimes numbness and tingling can be prolonged for several months or years depending on the situation. (2)
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Why Do My Feet Feel As if They are Burning?
In addition to numbness, there are several other descriptive factors for what nerve-related pain feels like. These also vary in severity and can include:
Burning (feeling like a “hot poker” or “walking on coals”)
Tingling (feeling like your foot is “asleep”)
Heaviness (“my foot feels like it weighs a ton”)
Feeling of having to shake or move your foot (restless legs or feet)
Stabbing (“jabbing with tiny knives or pins”)
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Pain is subjective but very real, and everyone experiences it differently. However, these are some of the most common ways that people describe nerve-related pain in their limbs. Many of the potential treatments and exercises will be similar for any description of these symptoms and can help your provider narrow down some options on the best way for you to get some relief.
How Do I Relieve My Numb Feet?
Nerves love motion and movement, much like our muscles and joints! We don’t often think about how to “heal” our nerves like we would heal a damaged muscle or bone, but keeping our nervous system healthy is just as important! Especially if your numbness is so severe that it is impacting your ability to walk, making you fall, or making it difficult to keep your balance during activities.
One way to heal through numbness in our feet is described in this article:
Neurodynamics literally means “movement of nerves” and that’s exactly what happens in this system of treatment. We introduce purposeful, gliding-type movements into the body’s nervous system to give them space, movement, and healing!
Here are a few to try!
There are two ways we can work on neural mobility and health. As demonstrated in the first exercise, we can simply glide the nerve. This means that we aren’t putting any tension through the nerve as we move it through the lower extremity. Gliding or sliding of a nerve is a good first step if dealing with lots of numbness and tingling in your feet!
We can also work to tension the nerve as demonstrated in the second exercise above. This means that we are placing tension on the nerve for a few seconds. This will serve as a bigger “stretch” to many and is a good exercise to progress to once the first exercise feels comfortable!
What Else Can I Do To Help With My Numb Feet?
Also, the inclusion of balance exercises can help to train your nervous system, especially if this is a struggle because of the numbness. Here are a few to get you started!
As always when training balance exercises, make sure your environment is set up for safety! Do your exercises by a countertop or stable surface (no holding on to the rocking chair!), and if necessary, have a family member or friend present to spot you just in case.
Will a Certain Type of Footwear Help my Numb Feet?
The choice of footwear can be an important consideration for the person with numbness in their feet. Footwear should NOT be tight anywhere, including across the toes or sole of the foot. Extra compression and pressure from tight footwear can cause nerve symptoms to worsen, especially with walking and moving. A good test – try and wiggle your toes in your shoe. You should be able to!
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Also, having footwear with good tread and ankle support to prevent slipping is important for safety, especially with compromised balance. Another consideration is insoles that are inserted into the shoe to allow for improved mobility and stability of the foot inside the shoe, as well as to put the foot in a position that will mitigate numbness. In one case study in 2022 (3), researchers looked at an insole called a plantar pressure reliever in a person with diabetic neuropathy, and found this to be an effective treatment to improve walking mechanics and decrease symptoms of numbness.
Often, your physical therapist, doctor, or orthotist can make a recommendation on what is the best type of shoe and/or orthotic for your specific foot type!
If you suffer from numb feet, not to fear! We can be empowered to do something to improve these symptoms, and some of the tips and tricks discussed in this article are a great place to begin. Numbness in our feet can negatively impact our quality of life, especially if it affects our walking or balance, and we want to be out there living our best lives! Give some of these exercises a try!
Taryn was born and raised in Maine and still resides there with her fiancé and son. Taryn received her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Husson University in 2010, and also carries a Bachelor’s in Kinesiology and Human Movement Science. She is a Certified Lymphedema Therapist, a Certified Crossfit Level 2 Trainer, and a NASM Certified Nutrition Coach. Taryn has 12+ years of experience in many different realms of PT, from the young athlete to the geriatric patient. Most recently she is employed with a home health PT company and is working toward her Advanced Competency in Home Health. Taryn considers herself a ‘lifelong learner’. She has special interests in oncology care and breast health, dry needling, and Crossfit training. In her free time, Taryn enjoys fitness, spending time with her family, continuing education, writing, and reading, and is very excited to be a part of The [P]rehab team to educate and empower others to take control of their health and wellness.
Disclaimer – The content here is designed for information & education purposes only and is not intended for medical advice.
About the author : Taryn Beaumont PT, DPT, CLT, CF-L2, CNC