Nerve cells are spread throughout your entire body. They’re what allow you to sense heat, move muscles, inhale and exhale, and induce the stress response through electrical impulses sent between brain and body. But when your nerve cells are attacked and stop functioning as normal, strange sensations start to creep in.
In this article, we’ll be discussing 7 autoimmune diseases that cause numbness and tingling. Maybe you’re already familiar with autoimmune conditions such as diabetes, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis and their effects on the nervous system because you’ve been diagnosed with one or more of them. Or maybe you suspect an autoimmune disease may be lurking beneath the surface, with symptoms that are causing loss of feeling or sensitivity in your extremities.
Regardless of where you currently reside along your autoimmune journey, we’re here to provide this scientifically backed resource to help you when your autoimmunity starts to get on your nerves.
A Breakdown of the Nervous System
Before discussing the autoimmune diseases that affect the nerves, let’s do a basic review of the human nervous system to understand how your nerves function in the first place.
There are 2 main parts of the nervous system: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS is composed of the brain and spinal cord. In the back of the brain, there are 12 paired cranial nerves, and along the spinal cord, there are 31 pairs of spinal nerves. The PNS contains many nerves that branch out all over the body and send information from your organs and extremities back to the spinal cord and brain. The entire nervous system is a multi-billion-celled structure serving as the body’s command center. (Source, Source)
The PNS also contains your somatic and autonomic nervous systems. The somatic nervous system is responsible for voluntary movements, whereas the autonomic nervous system controls activities that you do without conscious influence, like breathing, maintaining your blood pressure, and digesting food. (Source)
The autonomic nervous system can be further broken down into 2 additional parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. You may be familiar with the body’s responses of “fight or flight” and “rest and digest,” which relate to the roles of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, respectively. These 2 systems complement each other and help keep your body in a balanced state of homeostasis. (Source)
Clearly, your body is packed full of nerves that keep you up and running, allowing you to interact with and sense the environment around you. But when the nervous system gets frayed and your nerves become damaged, you may want to consider the underlying cause of your body’s imbalance. Next, we’ll talk specifically about 7 autoimmune diseases that can damage the nervous system and cause numbness and tingling.
Which Autoimmune Diseases Cause Numbness and Tingling?
Let’s start with a necessary statement: It’s important to take any signs or symptoms such as numbness and tingling seriously. If you are losing feeling or coordination, having severe muscle weakness, slurred speech or blurred vision, random muscle movements, or changes in memory or behavior, don’t wait to contact your health care provider. These sudden and severe changes should signal you to seek appropriate medical care so you don’t suffer long-term nervous system damage. (Source)
When numbness or tingling is occurring but not to an extreme degree, you may be experiencing peripheral neuropathy. This condition is a result of peripheral nerve damage, meaning nerves located outside of the brain and spinal cord have been impaired. This results in pain that can be described as stabbing, tingling, or burning, along with weakness and numbness. Peripheral neuropathy can occur from injuries, infections, certain genes, toxins, and also from autoimmune diseases. (Source)
So peripheral neuropathy is the cause of numbness and tingling, but different autoimmune diseases are the root cause of peripheral neuropathy. Let’s go into more detail with 7 of these diseases to empower you with the knowledge to positively impact your wellbeing and autoimmune journey.
Guillain–Barré syndrome, or GBS, is a rare neurological and autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the nerves of the PNS (and, much less commonly, the CNS). The first symptoms typically occur as tingling and weakness in the feet and hands, and may not progress to anything more serious. But in some cases, the tingling sensations spread rapidly and eventually paralyze your entire body, requiring hospitalization for treatment and recovery. (Source)
Guillain–Barré can affect anyone at any age, and the exact cause is unknown. It’s neither contagious nor inherited. However, up to 67% of patients reported having an infection in the 6 weeks leading up to their GBS diagnosis. Infections could come from various sources such as the Zika virus, a respiratory or gastrointestinal infection, or even COVID–19. (Source, Source)
Besides tingling, muscle weakness is the chief symptom in GBS. You can reach your weakest state 2 or 3 weeks after initial symptoms appear, and may also experience difficulty with the muscles that control the eyes and mouth, problems with bladder control, and severe pain, particularly at night. (Source)
Fortunately, recovery is possible even in the most severe cases of GBS through 2 treatments. The first is plasma exchange, where your plasma is extracted from your blood. Because plasma contains antibodies, removing some plasma can reduce the number of antibodies that have been attacking the nerves. The second treatment, high-dose immunoglobulin therapy, provides intravenous injections of the proteins created by the immune systems of healthy donors that attack infections, which can lessen the immune system’s attack on the nervous system. (Source)
GBS vs. CIDP
Guillain–Barré is typically considered an acute, short-term disease. Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (shortened to CIDP) is another rare type of autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks myelin sheaths — the fatty, protective coverings on the nerve fibers. Considered to be a chronic, long-term disease, CIDP is thought to be related to GBS. They share the same set of symptoms, which can make it hard to receive a distinct diagnosis. However, if your symptoms are lasting longer than 8 weeks your doctor may suspect it’s CIDP instead of the more common GBS. It can be treated in much the same way as GBS, and you can find more helpful information on both of these diseases from GBS/CIDP Foundation International. (Source)
2. Sjögren’s Syndrome
Sjögren’s syndrome is described as a systemic autoimmune disorder that affects the eyes, mouth, and other areas when the immune system attacks the glands that make tears and saliva. The classic symptoms are dry mouth, dry eyes, or a combination of both, but the effects can be felt throughout the entire body, to include inflammation of the nervous system. (Source)
Severe neuropathy and limb weakness is associated with Sjögren’s syndrome, and although there is no known cure, immunosuppressive therapy can be effective in treating the immune reaction. Sjögren’s Foundation shares reliable health information on this condition and is working to reduce the time it takes to receive a proper diagnosis. (Source)
3. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
This autoimmune disorder, commonly referred to as SLE or lupus, constitutes chronic inflammation of connective tissues, which can affect any organ system and even the nervous system itself. Nerve damage from SLE can cause changes in sensation throughout the body, such as fingers or toes becoming numb when exposed to cold or stress. Lupus has many ways of manifesting in the body and is different for each individual living with this condition. Lupus Foundation of America is a useful resource if you’re wanting to further your knowledge on the disease. (Source, Source)
4. Type 1 Diabetes
In type 1 diabetes, the immune system is thought to have a reaction that destroys the insulin-making cells in the pancreas. This process can be drawn out for months or years before symptoms become noticeable. If you have type 1 diabetes, you may have decreased sensation in the feet and legs due to diabetic neuropathy, along with a host of other symptoms caused by blood sugar imbalance. (Source, Source)
More than half of all people with diabetes (including type 2) will develop some type of neuropathy that affects feeling in the limbs, making diabetes one of the most common causes of peripheral neuropathy. (Source)
5. Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that occurs when your immune system attacks the cells lining your joints, which makes the joints inflamed, stiff, and painful. The cause is unknown and there is no cure (yet!), but early diagnosis and treatment can prevent flare-ups for months or years at a time. (Source)
A possible and common complication of RA is carpal tunnel syndrome. When nerves that control the movement and sensation in the hands are compressed, you may have numbness and aching throughout the hands and wrists, or tingling in the fingers and thumbs. Keeping inflammation under control is key to managing RA successfully in the long term, and reduces the risk of having debilitating complications like carpal tunnel syndrome. Wanting more RA information? Find it in our blog that describes RA treatments and how RA differs from osteoarthritis. (Source)
6. Multiple Sclerosis
Numbness and tingling may be the very first symptoms you experience at the onset of multiple sclerosis (MS). These abnormal sensations may be felt in the arms, legs, or torso, and are typically spread out over the course of a few days. The immune system attacks the myelin sheaths of the CNS, damaging or scarring the sheaths and potentially the nerves underneath. Multiple sclerosis can get progressively worse over time, or may come and go with relapses and remissions. It differs from CIDP because in MS, the CNS myelin sheaths are attacked, whereas in CIDP the PNS myelin sheaths are attacked. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is a useful resource to dig deeper into this condition. (Source, Source)
7. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or Hashimoto’s disease, is an autoimmune condition in which thyroid cells are attacked by the immune system and the thyroid gland is gradually destroyed. Hashimoto’s disease is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States.
When severe hypothyroidism is left untreated, it can cause peripheral neuropathy. Hypothyroidism can cause fluid retention, and when tissues are swollen, additional pressure is put on peripheral nerves causing numbness, tingling, and potentially carpal tunnel syndrome as well. Although it can take years for Hashimoto’s disease to develop and present symptoms, tingling and numbness are just 2 of the many possible physical and mental symptoms associated with Hashimoto’s. (Source, Source)
More Ways Your Nervous System Can Be Affected by Autoimmune-Related Factors
Your nervous system can be affected in many ways beyond the conditions we’ve described. From stress and anxiety to nutritional deficiencies and gut health, your nerves are receiving constant inputs from your daily choices and actions, which can either benefit or harm your nervous system in the long run. If you’re experiencing a lack of vitamin B12 in your diet due to a digestive tract affliction such as SIBO, or are dealing with high levels of emotional stress in your life, these circumstances can put extra strain on your nervous system. Take a comprehensive look at your overall wellbeing to see where you can tend to your nervous system to help de-stress and heal from daily wear and tear.
The Bottom Line on Autoimmune Diseases That Cause Numbness and Tingling
There are multiple autoimmune diseases that can cause the symptoms known as peripheral neuropathy. Some conditions can progress rapidly and cause extensive damage if medical intervention is not received early on. Different treatments to suppress the immune response are helpful to allow the body a chance to heal, but it’s important to approach healing from a holistic perspective and consider lifestyle factors that can be changed to promote healthy behaviors.
The 7 autoimmune diseases we’ve discussed are not exhaustive of all the conditions that may cause numbness and tingling. It’s vital to discuss all your symptoms with your care team and present a thorough health history to determine what the root cause underlying your symptoms might be. If you’re in need of support and aren’t sure where to begin on your autoimmune journey, take WellTheory’s 2–minute questionnaire to get some direction for your path to healing.
Numbness and tingling are symptoms that should be taken seriously. Advocate for yourself and your unique symptoms to enable your care team to discover the right diagnosis and set you on a successful path toward healing — because your wellbeing is worth it.