Is it dangerous?

My Aunty Barb (aka my mum’s best friend since she was a little tacker) loves that I’m the Queen of Obscure Details. Brace yourself Barb, I’m about to bombard you with a few more …

I had insomnia in the middle of last night, caused by worrying that my arm was going to fall off … ironically because I’d been sleeping too heavily on it …

I woke up lying on my stomach and realised my arm was numb beneath my body.

I turned over and it flopped heavily onto the mattress. Thunk!

I freaked out. I’ve had limbs go to sleep before, but nothing like like this. It was totally devoid of sensation.

I picked my dead arm up and it lay there limply in my other hand. It wasn’t just asleep, it was completely comatose.

I started shaking it and nothing happened. Finally, the pins and needles kicked in. Then, with a jolt, I felt the blood begin to pump back through my veins.

I lay there for the next hour worrying that gangrene might be setting in. So I consulted with my personal physician, Dr Google, who said the scientific term for what happened to me is paresthesia.

Paresthesia occurs when sustained pressure is placed on a nerve, a bit like like when you step on a garden hose.

Think of it as a traffic jam in your nervous system. When traffic is running smoothly, tiny electrical impulses move along the nerves that run from your spine to your arms and legs. These sensations then move up the spinal cord to the brain. But if constant pressure is placed on a nerve, it causes a roadblock. This prevents the nervous system from carrying the electrical impulses that normally transmit feeling, which can lead to a loss of feeling or numbness.

When the blockage is removed, the nerve cells start waking up as they start getting impulses again, which causes that uncomfortable pins-and-needles feeling – it’s the nervous system becoming hyperactive as it regains normal function.

Thank you Dr Google.

My next question was: is it dangerous?

According to Slate, no.

“Don’t worry,” it assured me. “A few hours of nerve compression and decreased blood flow won’t make your arm fall off.”

Since Slate isn’t a medical expert, I thought I’d better investigate further.

If I die, please don’t look at my Google history, it’s whacked.  

Vox (also not a medical expert) said: “Compressing nerves can damage them. The good thing is that the body will naturally wake up as a protection mechanism when a nerve has been compressed too long. After you wake and relieve the pressure, the nerves will quickly come back online.”

Vox also ask James Dyck, a neurology researcher with the Mayo Clinic, for his scientific opinion. And he said someone who falls asleep on a limb is unlikely to do major damage to the nerves.

So maybe I’ll be OK.


He noted that it can be a problem if it’s “Saturday night palsy”. That occurs when you fall asleep and compress a nerve while drunk. The alcohol impairs your body’s ability to wake you up and protect your nerves.

“If you’re passed out drunk, you won’t move your arm,” Dyck said. And when you wake up the next day, you can’t extend your wrist and you can’t extend your fingers.”

And that might take longer than a few moments – perhaps even a few days or months – to sort itself out, as the nerve has to repair its protective coating.

Eeek! No more G&Ts before bed for me!

Fortunately I wasn’t drunk, just wide awake and overthinking.

Have you ever wondered about all that, Aunty Barb?

Song of the day: U2 “Numb”

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