What causes 'pins and needles', and when you should worry about the condition

Pins and needles is a normal sensation, but prolonged and repetitive bouts of it are worth flagging up to your GP. Two doctors talk us through what to look out for.

Generally, pins and needles is not a big deal. That prickling, numbing, burning feeling – which is known as paraesthesia in medical circles – is often nothing to be concerned about.

In the majority of cases, a pins and needles sensation is just your nerves telling you that you need to get more blood to that part of your body.

[Read more: Should I worry about my swollen glands?]

So that's why you often experience it in the legs and buttocks when you've been sitting down for too long, or in your arm when you've sat awkwardly in a chair for an evening.

Why do we get pins and needles?

“If you hang your arm over the back of the chair for too long, what can happen is the top of the chair cuts off the blood supply going into your arm,” explains GP and online doctor, Dr Helen Webberley.

“It's not critical because there's blood getting through, but if it happens for long enough, what happens is that the blood supply to the nerves at the end of your arm gets cut off.

"Then the nerves start to fire to warn us that this is happening, and that we need to do something about it because the blood supply's cut off.

“So the nerves firing is what causes that funny pins and needles sensation that we all know about.”

What can pins and needles indicate?

Generally, experiencing pins and needles should only be a cause for concern if it occurs regularly and over a prolonged period.

According to Dr Webberley, prolonged and regular pins and needles can be a sign of nerve problems in the spinal column, an overstressed lifestyle or even, in some cases, mild carbon monoxide poisoning.

When should we be worried about pins and needles?

Dr Jonathan Cooper-Knock, a clinical lecturer in neurology, also emphasises that pins and needles is nothing to worry about in the majority of cases. He says that a pins and needles sensation should only be a concern in a few specific instances.

“Most of us will wake up with pins and needles in our arms and hands at night,” he says.

“Often it's just because you're laying a bit funny, and you basically compress a nerve. It can be more common if people have been drinking. They can often lie in funny positions without waking up. So then the compression is worse. That's very, very common, and not something to worry about.

“However, if your pins and needles is associated with other symptoms like weakness, headaches or weight loss, or your pins and needles symptoms are particularly prolonged, then go and see your GP.”

[Read more: The 7 most embarrassing medical conditions explained]

More from BT