3 Ways High Cholesterol Causes Pins-and-Needles

The tingly sensation is often attributed to high cholesterol—but is that really the cause? Our experts give us the 411.

by Priscilla Blossom Health Writer

You’ve probably experienced pins-and-needles—a temporary tingling or prickling sensation in your extremities—at some point in your life. Maybe you were sitting cross-legged for too long, or perhaps your arm “fell asleep” while lying on your side. Known as paresthesia, this sensation tends to go away once you move your body.

For folks with high cholesterol, however, it can sometimes seem like pins and needles are an ongoing occurrence. Here’s the thing: While high cholesterol itself is symptom-less, it is linked to multiple other conditions that can cause the tingling you’re experiencing. Let’s take a closer look at three ways your high cholesterol may be indirectly leading to those pins and needles.

#1 It can result from diabetes, and diabetes causes nerve damage.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the blood—high levels of which can make it difficult for blood to flow freely through arteries in the body. There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (or HDL), which is often referred to as “good” cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (or LDL) which is the type that can clog artery walls and put your health at risk.

According to the Mayo Clinic, people with type 2 diabetes have increased triglycerides, decreased HDL cholesterol, and higher LDL cholesterol.

“Refined carbohydrates and sugar syrups have been shown to increase LDL and triglycerides and lower the favourable HDL cholesterol levels,” says Tricia Pingel, N.M.D., a naturopathic physician in Phoenix, AZ. “In addition, these high-sugar diets also induce further cardiovascular disease risk and impair insulin utilization (among other things).”

Diabetes, meanwhile, can lead to a condition known as peripheral neuropathy. This is a common nerve issue that causes numbness (such as pins-and-needles sensations) and is often seen in the hands and feet, though it can affect other areas.

#2 It causes plaque in the arteries, restricting blood flow.

“Cholesterol has no symptoms,” says Robert Greenfield, M.D., a triple board-certified cardiologist, lipidologist, and internist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA.

As such, he says, high cholesterol alone cannot be the cause of your tingling. “But the long-term consequences of high cholesterol—which could contribute to arterial disease—may result in these symptoms,” he says.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, high cholesterol causes atherosclerosis—a build-up in the walls of the arteries which causes them to narrow. Atherosclerosis can lead to coronary artery disease, carotid artery disease, and peripheral artery disease, among other issues—all of which can in turn present in some form of tingling or numbness.

Dr. Greenfield explains that as the plaque grows, it can inevitably cause a clot to form, which blocks blood flow in the artery. “If it's in the leg arteries, it produces leg pain especially with walking (called claudication),” says Dr. Greenfield, who says smokers are often at higher risk of claudication. Intermittent claudication can result in numbness and weakness in the legs, according to Cleveland Clinic.

“If the plaque is in a coronary artery, it can cause a heart attack,” he says. “And if it's in a carotid artery or one of its branches going to the brain, it's a stroke.” In either case, it can result in sudden numbness or tingling in the arms or legs, according to Mayo Clinic.

#3 Familial high cholesterol may cause fat deposits in the body that put pressure on nerves.

Familial hypercholesterolemia (a.k.a. high cholesterol passed down from a relative) is caused by an inherited mutation in the gene for the LDL cholesterol receptor. This gene oversees the removal of LDL (bad cholesterol) from the body.

Unlike regular high cholesterol which may be caused by smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and a diet filled with foods high in saturated and trans fats, people with this mutated gene are born with high LDL levels that lead to atherosclerotic plaques and continue to rise if left untreated.

One of the symptoms of familial high cholesterol is cholesterol deposits that build up in the Achilles tendons or hand/elbow tendons. Overtime, these piles of cholesterol deposits can put pressure on the nerves in the hands, feet, elbows, and ankles, and lead to tingling.

What Should You Do If You Notice Persistent Tingling?

Though pins and needles might not be a direct symptom of high cholesterol, “it shouldn't be ignored,” says Dr. Greenfield. When someone has paresthesia, they may lose sensation in their feet, and this loss of sensation can lead to instability and falling spells, as well as the inability to respond to hot or cold.

For immediate relief, Dr. Pingel suggests simply moving the body. Try taking a walk (or even just walking in place a bit), or move the tingling areas in any other way to relieve the sensation.

“Hypericum, which is St. John's Wort, has also shown some success in certain individuals with nerve pain and tingling,” adds Dr. Pingel. Make sure to check with your doctor before taking any medications—even these herbal therapies.

Paresthesia can be caused by a number of different—and often serious—issues. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, these can range from multiple sclerosis and transient ischemic attacks (or mini-strokes), to encephalitis and tumors. Getting checked out by a medical professional for persistent tingling is so important, high cholesterol or not.

Priscilla Blossom
Meet Our Writer
Priscilla Blossom