Often referred to as head paresthesia, numbness in the head can be caused by something as innocuous as stress or can be a sign of a more serious condition such as some neurological diseases, spinal disorders, infections and tumors. Particularly when accompanied by other symptoms including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or blurred vision, numbness in the head should prompt a visit to your doctor for definitive diagnosis. Treatment will be based on what is actually causing the problem.
Numbness is caused when a nerve supplying a certain area of the body is disrupted by injury or disease. There are many causes of this problem:
One of the most devastating causes of numbness in the head is a trauma to the head or spinal cord. These injuries can cause numbness due to actual injuries to the nerves in the head or because of blood loss leading to decreased sensation. When a spinal cord injury occurs, the numbness may or may not resolve over time.
Epilepsy is a neurological disorder in which seizures occur. During these seizures, the individual may experience the typical “shaking” associated with the disease, but the symptoms may not be as dramatic as that. Often, a seizure may simply be staring, numbness in the head, or other symptoms. Epilepsy typically requires treatment with one or more medications but may also involve other lifestyle changes.
Numbness in the head or face can be caused by putting too much pressure on the blood vessels or nerves in the area. This is the same mechanism that causes numbness in your foot when you sit on your foot for too long. Usually, this numbness does not last for an extended period of time and will be resolved when the pressure is relieved and circulation is restored.
The virus that causes chickenpox can live in your system for years and is the cause of the infection known as shingles. The red patches and blisters associated with this infection usually appear on one side of the body or head and run along nerve pathways. When shingles are present on the head, numbness, visual disturbances, and other symptoms can result. Extremely painful, shingles can be treated to lessen the length of the infection, but they will usually disappear within a few weeks even without treatment.
A bacterial infection caused by the bite of an infected tick, Lyme Disease can be hard to diagnose. Usually, the diagnosis is made by the appearance of a circular “bull’s eye” rash around the bite. A person who has been infected may or may not be aware of any symptoms. Numbness in the head and face and other symptoms related to Lyme disease may appear months or years after the initial infection and, unless you and your healthcare provider are aware that you had Lyme disease, you may not even associate the numbness with the disease.
Multiple sclerosis is a progressive neurological disease that is a result of the destruction of the myelin sheath that covers each nerve fiber. Communication from your brain to muscles and organs normally occurs along the myelin sheath so disruption in this covering will also disrupt neurological communications. Typically diagnosed at about age 35-40, MS can cause many symptoms including numbness and unusual sensations in the head and other parts of the body. Blurred vision, impaired sensation, paralysis, fatigue and depression are other common symptoms of this disease.
The trigeminal nerve is the nerve that communicates between parts of your face and your brain. In trigeminal neuralgia, you will notice constant pain or numbness along the pathway of this nerve as it crosses your face. Injury to this nerve can be caused by trauma, infection, dental procedures and some diseases and is most common in adults over 50 years of age.
The membrane covering your brain and spinal cord is called the meninges. When the meninges become infected, the resulting disease is called meningitis. This potentially life-threatening problem must be evaluated as soon as it is suspected since bacterial meningitis is deadly and very infectious. Symptoms of meningitis include a very stiff neck, fever, numbness or pain in the head and possible seizures and death.
A cerebral vascular accident (CVA), or stroke, can occur when there is an obstruction of arteries to the brain or bleeding into the brain from a ruptured artery. In either case, the end result is decreased blood supply to the brain and eventual death of brain cells. One of the symptoms of a stroke is numbness to the head. However, the most critical symptoms are inability to speak coherently, numbness in extremities (particularly the arms), and facial asymmetry. Any of these symptoms should be treated as a true medical emergency in order to get the affected person to definitive treatment within the “golden hour” after symptoms first appear. The longer a stroke is left untreated, the more irreversible the brain damage becomes.
Other less common causes of numbness in the head can include cardiac problems, circulatory problems (particularly occlusions in arteries in the neck), excess potassium, brain tumors, and migraine headaches.
Unless there is a known, non-life threatening cause for numbness in the head, it is important to seek medical treatment as soon as possible to prevent further nerve or brain damage from the underlying cause. Treatment will be based on the diagnosis and can range from monitoring to medications to surgery. Without quick and appropriate treatment of the neuralgia, permanent nerve damage can result.