Numbness is when you lose some or all feeling in a part of your body. When this happens, you may also notice a tingling sensation – known as ‘pins and needles’ in the body part. These symptoms are medically known as paraesthesia.
Numbness and tingling can affect us all from time to time and usually these symptoms aren’t anything to worry about. You may get them if you sit or lie too long or awkwardly on a body part – like when you sleep on your arm – because the blood supply to your nerves gets cut off. But these symptoms usually disappear when you take the weight off the body part and your blood starts flowing properly again.
There are a number of different reasons why you may get numbness or tingling on the right or left side of your body. It may be a sign of irritation to a nerve (known as a pinched nerve, or nerve compression) or an infection of a nerve and the skin around it.
Sometimes, it may be a sign of a serious problem, especially if you keep getting these symptoms or they last for a long time.
Common causes of numbness and tingling on the left or right side of your body
Spondylosis is commonly caused by osteoarthritis of the spine, where ageing or overuse can cause wear and tear to your spinal bones and discs. This may cause bony growths to appear on parts of your spine, and these growths can irritate the nerves that run from your spine to other parts of your body, causing symptoms like numbness and pins and needles.
Other symptoms include pain or stiffness in your back, neck and shoulders, or headaches that usually start at the back of your neck.
Spondylosis usually isn’t serious, but if it becomes serious, you may get these symptoms:
- pins and needles or numbness in your arms or legs
- pain that gets worse quickly or spreads down your arm or leg
- trouble moving your hands, arms or legs, clumsy hands, or trouble with walking
- problems with controlling when you pee or poo
You usually get spondylosis in your neck or lower back.
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) happens when a nerve in your wrist (the median nerve) is squashed by a narrowing in a small tunnel in your wrist (called the carpal tunnel), or by a swelling around it. It causes tingling, numbness and pain in your fingers.
For most, there’s usually no clear cause of CTS, but certain conditions can increase your risk, including diabetes, an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), rheumatoid arthritis, acromegaly or being pregnant. Read more about the risk factors for CTS.
A slipped disc is when the cushion of tissue between the bones in your spine gets pushed out of place or ‘slips’. It may be caused by ageing, exercising too hard, heavy lifting or being overweight. When a disc slips, it can press on the nearby nerves and cause symptoms like tingling or pain in parts of your body below the disc that’s been affected.
You may not know you have a slipped disc, as you don’t always get symptoms, but if you do, you may have:
- neck, lower back, leg or arm pain
- numbness or tingling – usually on one side of your body but sometimes on both sides
- trouble moving your arms or legs (weakness)
If the slipped disc is at the bottom of your spinal cord, it can cause a serious problem called cauda equina syndrome. Its symptoms include numbness around your genitals or bottom (anus), trouble controlling when you poo or wee, and trouble moving one or both legs.
A stroke is a life-threatening condition that happens when a part of your brain loses its blood supply. Most strokes are caused by a blood clot (thrombosis) that cuts off the blood flow to your brain (known as an ischaemic stroke), but some can be caused by bleeding in the brain (known as a haemorrhagic stroke).
Stroke symptoms depend on which part of your brain is affected. You may feel tingling or numbness usually on one side of your body, but it could be on both sides. Other symptoms include:
- drooping of one side of your face
- trouble moving your arms or legs (weakness)
- numbness or tingling in your arms or legs
- trouble speaking, like slurred speech or not being able to talk
Sometimes you may get these symptoms, but they go away after a few minutes or hours – this is called a transient ischaemic attack (TIA), or ‘mini stroke’. Although the symptoms get better quickly, it can mean you’re at risk of having a full stroke.
Read more about the causes of strokes.
Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a serious condition that affects your brain and spinal cord, and stops your nerves working properly. Exactly what causes it isn’t clear, but it’s thought to be a combination of your genetics and environmental factors, such as viral infections in childhood.
MS can cause a wide range of symptoms, including numbness or tingling in different body parts. Other common symptoms include:
- feeling tired
- trouble walking
- blurred vision, double vision and eye pain
- problems controlling your pee
- problems with balance
- muscle stiffness and spasms
- problems with thinking, learning and planning
Your symptoms might come and go, or get gradually worse over time.
Tumours are groups of abnormal cells that form a growth. If the growth is in or near your brain or spine, it can press on your nerves. Not all tumours are cancerous – some (known as benign tumours) don’t spread to other parts of your body. But both types can squash or damage nerves and cause symptoms like numbness or tingling.
The causes of brain and spinal tumours aren’t clear, but they’re more common in older age.
If you have a brain tumour, your symptoms will depend on which part of your brain it’s in. Read more about the symptoms of brain tumours.
A spinal cord tumour may cause symptoms below where it’s growing, including tingling and numbness, weakness of a body part, and pain that’s there all the time.
Read more about spinal cord tumours and their symptoms.
Less common causes
Sometimes, other causes of numbness and tingling on one side of your body may include:
- a problem with the blood supply to a nerve or your brain – for example, peripheral arterial disease, a heart attack or angina
- an infection – like shingles or Lyme disease
- poisons or medication – like mercury poisoning or some chemotherapy medicines
- conditions like diabetes, chronic kidney disease and drinking too much alcohol (alcohol misuse)
- vitamin deficiencies, including vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia
When to see a doctor about numbness and tingling on one side of your body
Numbness and tingling on one side of your body isn’t always a sign of a serious condition, but you need urgent medical attention, especially if you have other symptoms too.
Go to an emergency department or call an ambulance if you’ve got numbness or tingling on one side of your body and:
- it came on suddenly
- it’s getting worse quickly
- you have trouble moving your arms, legs or hands (weakness)
- you have trouble speaking or understanding other people
- you have drooping on one side of your face
- you have loss of, blurred or double vision
- you’re fainting, feel confused, dizzy or are losing your balance
- you’re having fits (seizures)
- you have a fever or a very bad headache
- you have numbness or tingling around your genitals (vagina or penis)
- you have trouble controlling when you poo or pee
- you have chest pain or shortness of breath
- you have very bad pain in your arm, leg or foot that doesn’t go away when you rest, your leg or arm feels cold, or looks pale, white or blue, or you can’t move it
- you’ve had an injury to your neck or back
See a doctor as soon as possible if you have numbness or tingling on one side of your body, and:
- it’s not going away
- it keeps coming back
- it spreads to another part of your body
- you have headaches
- you feel pain in the affected area
- you have a wound or rash on your leg
- you’re losing weight without meaning to
- you’re feeling sick or being sick
- your hands feel clumsy
- it gets worse when you feel hot
Treatment for tingling and numbness on one side of your body
You can try managing spondylosis with self-care, including making changes to your posture – for example, getting a better office chair to support your spine. Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) or painkillers can help relieve the pain – but speak to your pharmacist or doctor on how to safely get and use these medicines.
If these measures aren’t helping, see a doctor. Treatment may include:
- other medication such as nerve painkillers
- physiotherapy and exercises
Carpal tunnel syndrome
CTS sometimes gets better by itself in a few months, particularly if you have it because you’re pregnant. But if it doesn’t, see a doctor. Treatment may include:
- using a wrist splint and not doing activities that make it feel worse
- taking painkillers
- hand exercises
- treating any underlying cause, such as losing weight if you’re overweight
- a steroid injection
You can try to manage your symptoms at home by taking simple painkillers and anti-inflammatories, as these often help. But see a doctor if your symptoms aren’t improving or you develop any of the symptoms in the 'When to see a doctor’ section.
A doctor may recommend treatments, such as a steroid injection, muscle relaxants or physiotherapy.
Read more about and other treatments for a slipped disc.
A stroke is a medical emergency that needs to be treated in hospital.
Depending on the type of stroke you’ve had, treatment may include:
- medication to dissolve any blood clots
- surgery to remove clots or blood, and repair any burst blood vessels
- blood-thinning medication
- medication to control your high blood pressure or reduce high cholesterol
Read more about treatment, recovery and reducing your risk of stroke.
If you think you’ve had a TIA, see a doctor as soon as possible. Its treatment usually involves blood-thinning medication like aspirin and tests to see if you’re likely to have a full stroke. Read more about treating and preventing a TIA.
If you think you may have MS, see a doctor as soon as possible. There’s currently no cure for MS, but there are lots of treatments that can help manage your symptoms, slow the progression of the condition and speed up your recovery from a relapse. They include:
- steroid tablets (for relapses)
- nerve painkillers or muscle relaxants (for relieving symptoms)
- disease-modifying therapies (for slowing down progression)
Read more about treatment for MS.
If you’re worried you may have a tumour, see a doctor. Treatment for tumours depends on whether a tumour is cancerous or not and where it is, but may include:
- steroids to help stop the tumour from putting pressure on your spinal cord or brain
- surgery to remove the tumour
- radiotherapy to help shrink the tumour
Read more about different types of brain tumours.
How long will it take for the numbness or tingling on one side of your body to get better?
There are many different reasons why you may have numbness or tingling on one side of your body, which is why it’s important to find out the cause of your symptoms to rule out anything serious.
Some of these conditions will get better quickly without any treatment or with self-care, but other more serious ones will need treatment from a doctor, or in a hospital – and you’ll take longer to recover. MS is a lifelong condition, so you’ll need treatment for the rest of your life to manage your symptoms, stop it getting worse and to avoid complications.
Your health questions answered
Can anxiety cause numbness on the left or right side of my body?Answered by: Dr Rhianna McClymontLead Doctor at Livi
Yes, anxiety can cause a number of physical symptoms, like numbness or tingling of your face, arms, hands, legs or feet – especially at the peak of anxiety or when having a panic attack. However, there can be many other reasons for numbness on one side of the body, so see a doctor if you develop this symptom.
- numbness and tingling on one side of your body affect us all from time to time and usually they aren’t anything to worry about
- conditions that may cause tingling and numbness on one side of your body include spondylosis, a slipped disc, stroke or multiple sclerosis
- sometimes, they may be a sign you need urgent medical attention, especially if you have other symptoms too
- depending on what’s causing them, symptoms of numbness or tingling may be managed with medication, if detected and treated quickly
- healthy lifestyle habits like not smoking and eating a healthy, balanced diet can reduce your risk for stroke