You’re probably familiar with that feeling of pins and needles in your legs after you’ve sat cross-legged or in a different difficult position for a long period of time. That is when your legs fall asleep and it happens to everybody. It’s kind of weird and annoying and, of course, a little uncomfortable, but it’s completely normal.
Why do your legs fall asleep?
The formal term for when your legs fall asleep is paresthesia. When a nerve is under sustained outer pressure it compresses and becomes temporarily unable to communicate with your brain (1). This is why you feel a certain level of numbness in your legs or, as we were saying, this is what causes your legs to actually “fall asleep”. Also, when you try to reawaken your legs, you will feel a certain kind of tingling, burning, like there are a thousand pins and needles inserted into your legs. These are normal symptoms of a sleepy leg. Paresthesia can be triggered by different daily behavioral movements, like crossing your legs or even sitting in the same position for a long time (2). Paresthesia clearly washes away after the nerve is no longer under pressure and the communication with the brain is restored (3).
In most cases, your legs falling asleep is a normal thing that can bring no harm to your limbs. There are times, though, when paresthesia can also hide serious afflictions. This time of paresthesia is chronic and does not only occur when sitting in an uncomfortable position for too long. Instead, it can occur at all times and be a symptom of a neurological problem or nerve damage (4, 5). Some of these causes might be: sclerosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, stroke, brain tumors or spinal cord tumors (6, 7).
So, if you experience pins and needles a little too often and easier than most of your friends, then you should go see a doctor. It might hide a serious condition.
What to do when your legs fall asleep?
The treatment for paresthesia is different from one case to another. If we’re talking chronic paresthesia, then you need to see a doctor for medical treatment. If it’s occasional paresthesia, then the best method to relieve the numbing and the tingling is to put your legs to work. Stand up, walk around, jump a little. It will be difficult at first, feeling all those needles pinning down on your leg, but it is the only way to relieve the pressure on your nerves and get that circulation back on track (8). In the future, choose to not sit with your legs crossed and you will notice how everything will eventually improve.
Other methods for waking up your “sleepy legs” are: massage, warm compress, maybe a salt bath. It sounds more relaxing and easier than jumping and moving around, doesn’t it? It might happen that your legs fall asleep because of a panic attack. So, in that case, the anxiety has to pass in order for the paresthesia symptoms to improve.
Chronic paresthesia, on the other hand, is different and the treatment depends on the multiple causes that affect it. For cases of insect bites that provoke paresthesia (9), a doctor will treat it with specific medications. In other cases, he will provide you with some vitamins or supplements to help your circulation get back to normal (10). Anyways, it is always important to keep track of all the times when your legs are falling asleep and if it happens too often or without you having sat in an unusual, uncomfortable position for too long, then you should think about seeing a doctor, because that’s a sign of chronic paresthesia which could hide other serious afflictions.