Known as paresthesia, a tingling sensation in the head is a common experience most of us have had at one point in our lives. It can feel like a burning sensation, or like that pins and needles sensation you get when your foot falls asleep, or you may experience it as numbness in the head or scalp.
The sensation can be a rare occurrence, or it can happen on a regular basis. For some people, the sensation never goes away.
So what exactly is this tingling sensation in the head? And, more importantly, should you be worried?
What is the Tingling Sensation in My Head?
Persistent anesthesia, or paresthesia, can be the result of a variety of factors. The number one cause is staying in the same position for too long, allowing the blood flow to be constricted to a certain area, like when your foot falls asleep because you’ve been sitting on it. Other causes of paresthesia can include:
- Injury to or pressure on a nerve or nerves
- Side effects of certain medications
- A vitamin B-12 or other vitamin deficiency
- Side effects of radiation therapy
- Abnormal levels of certain electrolytes such as potassium, sodium, or calcium
- A spinal injury such as a herniated disc that puts pressure on a spinal nerve
- Mercury poisoning
- Sinus infection, the flu, or a cold
Certain medical conditions can also cause paresthesia, including:
- Anxiety disorders
- Stroke or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs)
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Atherosclerosis – plaque buildup in the blood vessels which leads to the restriction of blood flow
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Seizures and seizure disorders like epilepsy
- Hypothyroid (underactive thyroid)
- Brain tumors
- Shingles (herpes varicella-zoster virus)
- Autonomous sensory meridian response or ASMR
Most of these medical conditions have one of two things in common. They affect the circulation of the blood or affect the nerves. For example, rheumatoid arthritis indirectly affects the nerves because of the deformation of the joints the disease causes, which can result in paresthesia.
On the other hand, strokes and TIAs (transient ischemic attacks) are the results of a lack of blood flow to a specific part of the brain. The effects of a stroke are typically permanent or long-term, whereas the effects of a TIA are usually brief or short-lived. Depending on which part of the brain is affected, the result could be the complete loss of the use of a limb or simply paresthesia.
Stress and Anxiety Can Be a Factor
The feeling of anxiety is the result of the release of stress hormones and is more commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. It is an instinctive response to a life-threatening situation that has its roots in our caveman days (when there was a very real threat that people could end up as dinner for a lion).
But this stress response has an on/off switch. When the threat passed for cavemen, the stress response would shut down and they were able to relax again. Today, our stress response is stuck in the “on” position. This constant bombardment of stress hormones in the brain can lead to a variety of strange side effects, one of which is paresthesia. So if you’ve ever asked yourself “what is this tingling sensation on the left side of my head,” it could be the result of stress from a high-pressure environment.
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR)
Brain tingles can also be caused by a newly discovered phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response or ASMR. Very little research has been done in this area of neuroscience, but ASMR is a tingling in the brain caused by hearing a specific type of sound such as whispering or finger tapping. In fact, a quick search on YouTube reveals over 5 million results for ASMR videos that offer a variety of different sounds that can trigger the response.
When to Seek Medical Attention
Although paresthesia is a common phenomenon, there are instances when a visit to your physician is warranted. Our doctors can help you determine if your paresthesia is cause for concern. You should contact the National Headache Institute right away if your paresthesia:
- Has become more frequent
- Has changed in intensity or severity
- Is accompanied by pain
- Has started occurring in a different place
- Has started only recently
- Lasts longer than normal
- Is accompanied by a severe headache
Our doctors will run a variety of tests including MRIs, lab tests (bloodwork), electromyography or electroencephalography, and if necessary, a nerve biopsy.
Combined with your current medical history and a neurological exam, our doctors will be able to help you determine the cause of the tingling sensation in your head and find a treatment that works for you.