Have you ever experienced a tingly sensation in your tongue, or you suddenly can’t feel your tongue or it feels prickly like “pins and needles’? You may be experiencing what we call a numb tongue. This numbness can also affect your gum and lips.
It is generally uncommon for the tongue to go numb so this can be very frightening. A numb tongue by itself may be no cause for alarm and would need no treatment. In other cases, the treatment depends on the cause.
Now, let’s look at the possible causes and what to do.
What Are The Causes Of A Numb Tongue?
Numbness is as a result of injury, compression or irritation of a nerve or a branch of one of the nerves in the body part affected. The tongue is a very sensitive organ and serves as a gateway for the protection of the body from harmful things. One of the defense mechanisms it uses to protect the body is numbness.
There are many causes that can affect the nerves in the tongue thereby triggering a protective response from the tongue. Some of these causes include:
1. Allergic Reaction
An allergic reaction to certain foods, chemicals or drugs you’ve been exposed to can make your tongue tingle and feel numb even at the tip. Allergies happen when your immune system gets confused and thinks that a relatively common food is not good for you. The most common foods to trigger allergies are:
• peanuts and tree nuts
Some adults who are allergic to pollen can also react to some common raw fruits and vegetables. These cause mouth irritation and can make your tongue tingle, swell, or feel irritated.
Drug allergies can also cause your tongue to swell, itch, and tingle. While these reactions are often caused by antibiotics, any drug can trigger these symptoms.
2. Canker Sores
These are also known as aphthous ulcers. They are small, oval-shaped, shallow sores that can form on or around your tongue, inside your cheeks, or on your gums. Although the cause is not clear, things like minor injuries to your mouth, hormonal changes, viruses, inadequate nutrition or allergies can cause canker sores. This condition can lead to numbness of the tongue.
Bacterial infections and viral infections such as shingles can cause nerve injury that results in numbness of the face. This numbness can spread to also include the tongue and around the mouth.
4. Bell’s Palsy
Bell’s palsy is paralysis of the facial muscles due to damage or trauma to the facial nerve. Paralysis is usually sudden in onset and affects only one side of the face. This can cause numbness of the tongue on the affected side.
5. Trauma/Injury To Tongue
A numb tongue can occur as a result of trauma, such as burns or even a bite to the tongue. There are taste buds present on the tongue that contain cells responsible for determination of taste. Any injury to these taste buds can cause tongue numbness and a decreased ability to taste. The numbness experienced in such cases may be temporary and improves with treatment.
6. Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune diseases are diseases that result from the body attacking itself. These diseases also affect the nerves in the tongue and cause injury that results in numbness of the tongue. Conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Systemic Lupus Erythematosis (SLE, Lupus) are examples of such autoimmune diseases.
7. Local Anesthesia
If you have had recent dental work done such as a tooth extraction or root canal; giving local anesthesia during the procedure can also lead to a numb tongue as a result of the nerve being damaged.
8. Vitamin B Deficiency
There are certain vitamins that are essential to healthy nerve function such as B-12 and B-9(folate). Deficiencies in these vitamins can lead to nerve damage and injury. Having low levels of vitamin B-12 or vitamin B-9 can make your tongue sore, swollen and affect your sense of taste.
Vitamin B-12 or folate deficiency is caused by either an inadequate amount of these vitamins in your diet or an inability to absorb these vitamins from the diet.
9. Burning Mouth Syndrome
Burning mouth syndrome is a condition where you experience intermittent episodes of severe burning in the tongue, lips, and gum. Its cause is unknown, but it is thought that deficiency of Vitamin B-12 or hormonal disturbances may cause it.
The symptoms vary from person to person and include changes in the sense of taste, dry mouth and a metallic taste in the mouth.
This is a medical condition whereby the level of calcium in your blood drops far below normal. This drop in the calcium level is caused by some factors. This may cause tingling in your tongue and lips.
11. Neurologic Disease
Numbness of the tongue or around the mouth can often be the symptom of a central nervous system condition such as a migraine or stroke. Symptoms of a migraine include a tingling sensation in the arms, face, lips, and tongue.
This is a condition in which your blood sugar level drops below the normal level. It can also affect the way your nerves function causing numbness and tingling in the tongue.
13. Decreased Blood Supply
Tongue numbness can also occur when the tongue is not receiving enough blood as a result of certain conditions like tumors.
14. Damaged Taste Buds
Other factors which can damage the taste buds and result in a numb tongue are increasing age, alcohol abuse, gum disease, ill-fitting dentures, and smoking.
What To Do?
Numbness of the tongue is a symptom that may require a visit to your doctor. The numbness may be temporary and resolve over time or may require treatment. In addition to the numb tongue, you may also experience other symptoms which require urgent attention
• Slow or slurred speech
• Complete loss of taste
• Abrupt and severe headache.
• Difficulty in breathing
• Weakness or one-sided facial paralysis
• Confusion, delusion or hallucinations.
• Numbness on one side of the body.
• Complete or partial paralysis.
• Swelling in the tongue, face or lips.
• Persistent bitter or bad taste in the mouth
These signs may be suggestive of a stroke and require medical attention immediately.
To know the exact cause of the numb tongue, proper medical history, and physical exam are carried out by your doctor. Also, investigations which need to be carried include X-rays, scans, and blood tests.
Treatment for a numb tongue is dependent on the underlying cause.
• Some mild causes, such as injury or trauma need no treatment because the numbness resolves on its own.
• If the numbness is as a result of damage to the nerve due to local anesthesia, it will also resolve over time.
• If as a result of food or drug allergy, try to identify the main trigger and stop consumption right away. Ensure you contact your doctor if you have other symptoms like difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, lip or mouth swelling, and constant itchiness.
• Serious causes such as a stroke or tumor need to be treated immediately so as to eliminate the tongue numbness.
• If you have a canker sore, avoid spicy foods. For pain relief, try rinsing your mouth with a warm salt water solution. Also over the counter oral gels for pain relief, for example, benzocaine can be applied. These sores usually resolve after about a week.
• Hypoglycemia is primarily associated with diabetes, but it can happen to anyone. Eating or drinking something with sugar in it can help bring the blood sugar levels back to normal. In cases associated with diabetes, consult your doctor.
• If due to hypocalcemia, the underlying cause is treated and calcium supplements may be prescribed so as to correct the deficiency.
• If as a result of burning mouth syndrome, avoid taking alcohol, tobacco, and spicy foods. Also, the underlying cause must be treated.
• If the numb tongue is due to vitamin deficiency, high doses of these vitamins are taken in addition to fruits and green leafy vegetables. If the deficiency is not treated in time, it could lead to permanent damage.
• If as a result of an infection, medications will be prescribed by your doctor to treat the infection and this resolves the numb tongue.
• If due to other medical conditions like stroke, or migraine, consult your doctor immediately.
• If as a result of Bell’s palsy, symptoms usually resolve within two weeks to six months. Treatment is to help reduce inflammation or target the underlying cause of the nerve paralysis.
How To Avoid Getting A Numb Tongue
- Eat a balanced diet rich in essential vitamins to keep the nerves healthy e.g. fruits, vegetables, grains, and lean proteins.
- Avoid foods that may trigger an allergic reaction. Take note of foods that seem to trigger allergy symptoms.
- Maintain optimal weight with regular exercise to prevent and also control diseases such as diabetes that can cause your tongue numbness.
A numb tongue is a rare occurrence but when it happens, it may or may not require treatment. Make sure you visit your doctor if you notice any changes in your tongue.