“Limbsomnia”: Pins and Needles Day and Paraesthesia

*The following blog post was written by Curatorial Assistant Varsha Jayaraman.

November 27th marked “Pins and Needles Day”.  It might seem that Pins and Needles Day would be something especially pertinent to a museum of health care; however, the origin of this day has nothing to do with the history of health care.  Rather, it originated to celebrate the 1937 opening of the Broadway show, Pins and Needles, a gutsy comedic play about the pro-Labour movement.  Regardless, as a Museum, we do not let days so aptly named after medical implements pass by without some consideration!

The expression “pins and needles” is used to describe both a feeling of nervousness or anxiety, as well as the tingling feeling experienced after a period of extended pressure on a muscle, causing an itching or numbing sensation, formally known as “paraesthesia.”  Paraesthesia comes from the Greek words para, meaning “abnormal”, and aesthesia, “sensation”.  Paraesthesia can therefore be seen as a feeling of abnormal tenderness and tingling, often deemed uncomfortable and temporarily unsettling.

Paraesthesia has been classified on the basis of its underlying causes.  Short-term paraesthesia, the most common form, generally occurs when pressure is applied to a part of the body, thereby cutting off the blood supply to the nerves in that area.  This form of paraesthesia occurs when you are sitting too long in an office chair and your foot “falls asleep,” or when you sleep on your arm and you feel “pins and needles” in the morning.  Paraesthesia can occur also due to other precursors or predominating illnesses.  It can often be a side effect or an accompanying symptom of an overarching condition.  Some examples of these conditions include:

  • Nerve damage
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Stroke
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Encephalitis
  • Brain/CNS tumours
  • Diabetes
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Vitamin B12 deficiencies
  • Alcoholism
  • Metal poisoning
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lupus

Treatment for paraesthesia differs based on the cause of the condition.  Often, for short-term “pins and needles”, you simply relieve the pressure on that part of the body.  For example, if you have paraesthesia from crossing your legs while sitting, you simply uncross your legs to gain blood flow.  Similarly, paraesthesia induced during hyperventilation or an anxiety attack typically cedes when the attack has passed.  Other types of paraesthesia caused by more severe chronic conditions involve further intensive remediation.  Often, these may involve medication, regular medical screenings, physical therapy, orthopaedic intervention, lifestyle changes and, in severe cases, hospitalization and surgery.

Paraesthesia is a common problem; yet, few have written about its treatment and significance in medical history.  It seems odd that a condition that likely everyone has faced in their lifetime has no historical record of its treatment.  This can be stated not only for the short-term sensation but also its long-term effects.  Interestingly, paraesthesia can be a chronic condition but has received little prevalence in historical scholarship on medicine through the ages.

Munyon’s Nerve Cure Box, 1800-1899,1980.18.181, Collection of the Museum of Health Care

The artefact above dating from the 1800s was used as a homeopathic remedy to restore “overworked and overstrained nerves to a healthy condition.”  This claimed to cure symptoms of nervous exhaustion, such as depressed spirits, peevishness, irritability, general sensitiveness of the whole nervous system, failure of memory, inability to concentrate, morbid fears, etc.  It also claimed to cure nervous prostration, stimulate and strengthen the nerves, and tone up the whole body.  Although it does not explicitly refer to paraesthesia, one can infer that that it may play some role in better blood circulation for “nervous” disorders.

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