If you’ve ever experienced the “pins and needles” feeling of your foot falling asleep, you may have wondered what exactly happens when your foot goes numb. Known in the medical world as “paresthesia,” this strange feeling can happen when a nerve is being compressed, which can come from sitting in a way that puts your foot in an awkward position, or sitting with your legs crossed for a long period of time.

Foot Numbness: It’s a Pressure Problem

Contrary to popular opinion, foot numbness is not caused by a lack of blood flow to the affected area. The loss of feeling you experience is actually caused by excess pressure being placed on the nerves of your foot. Much like the way water is restricted from flowing through a twisted garden hose, electrical impulses are restricted from traveling from the nerves in your foot to your brain when those nerves are being compressed.

When these signals fail to reach their destination, your brain has no way to interpret what your foot is feeling at the time, so it simply sends back the message of “I don’t feel a thing!” This numbness typically hangs around for a few minutes until the nerves begin to wake up (producing that famous tingling feeling), which normally happens when you relieve the pressure and start moving around again.

When Is This Numbness Not Normal?

When your foot falls asleep, it only takes a couple of minutes of movement to get everything back to normal again. You may have to work through some prickly feelings at first, but it will typically last for only a brief period of time.

If you’re experiencing chronic numbness, some damage to your nerves may have occurred. It’s also important to note that foot numbness can be a symptom of an underlying medical condition. If you’re experiencing abnormally long periods of numbness in your foot, consult a podiatrist to discuss your symptoms, explore potential causes and narrow down appropriate treatment options.