To Here Knows When, When You Sleep
February 17, 2008 9:01 AM   Subscribe

How long can your extremities "fall asleep" before there is permanent damage?

I often wake up in the middle of the night and one of my arms is completely numb, like dead body numb. Is this dangerous at all?

Additionally, I meditate in the full lotus and one or both my legs sometimes fall asleep when I am sitting slightly crooked. I can keep meditating after they fall asleep, but I begin to worry that I am doing some sort of damage to my legs. How long is it safe to stay in that position after you know your legs are asleep?
posted by milarepa to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Your foot falling asleep for 10 minutes doesn't pose any health threat, but if you were to cut off circulation for an extended period of time -- several hours -- you could suffer serious nerve damage.

- Howstuffworks
As long as you're not meditating for hours at a time, I think you should be OK.
posted by stance at 9:06 AM on February 17, 2008

Arms/legs asleep is usually caused by a pinched nerve (not loss of circulation) so there's no immediate danger in prolonging it. (Straight Dope link)
posted by winston at 9:08 AM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah I wonder that a lot too. I think the big indicator is the coloration of the limb. My arm has been dead numb but it's coloration stayed pretty much the same, more red, maybe. If your arm is getting purple or darker, might be trouble. red means oxygenated blood, so your cells are getting oxygen. Of course i'm not a doctor. I guess the question is, if the limb is numb, are you damaging your nerves in the limb.

Lets hope a professional has something to say about this.
posted by high0nfire at 9:12 AM on February 17, 2008

Not much to add other than way back when, I read a Rolling Stone interview with a then-popular singer who suffered permanent nerve damage in his leg after spending a night passed out in an awkward position.

Oh! On googling, it was Eddie Money (6th paragraph down).
posted by jamaro at 9:34 AM on February 17, 2008

Now you have me nervous. I wake up at least once a week rolled over on my arm so that it's completely asleep. It usually takes a minute or so to come back. My arm works perfectly right away in that I can open and close my hand and whatnot, but I can't feel anything for that minute. That said I've had this happen for years and haven't noticed any significant degradation in the sensation I get out of that arm (always the right one).
posted by frieze at 9:44 AM on February 17, 2008

Leg numbness occurring with the lotus (i.e. legs scissored) position is not really surprising, as the body is arguably not originally designed for this, although it is obviously anatomically possible for most people to attain at least for short periods.

In German, this is called the taylor's position, as members of this profession traditionally sat on the floor in this configuration when mending/sowing (I guess in the middle ages craftsmen/women tended to be too poor to be able to readily afford multiple items of wooden furniture); clearly it is conducive to focussing on close-up work (and again glasses were not widely available/affordable in former times.

This suggests to me that perhaps many but probably not all people can sustain this position comfortably for considerable lengths of time once "used to" it. If you find you cannot get "used to" it (and clearly you would need to be supple), then it is probably unwise to persist. Age is a factor here - if you try to take this on in middle age your body may not be up to it. Meditating should be equally possible in other positions.

I would be more worried about frequent arm numbness occurring (presumably) in soft bedding, sufficiently uncomfortable to wake you up from deep sleep. This is not really normal, and if happening repeatedly on the same side it suggests that there may be a problem with either arterial supply being pinched in the axilla, or the nerves to that arm being pinched (possibly either by a disk prolapse in the neck or by you being one of the small proportion of people who have one or more "cervical ribs", an anatomical abnormality which may or may not cause problems but is only visible on radiographs. See a doctor (preferably a neurologist) to exclude these possibilities. If you share a bed or room with another person, get them to observe you in your sleep - do you assume unusual (and perhaps potentially unhealthy) body positions when asleep or when dreaming?

Everybody has a favoured body position for falling asleep - if yours is lying on your belly with your head on top of your extended (thrown-up) arm, then this alone may explain your symptoms, as this tends to put a good deal of stretch on both the main artery and the nerve supply to your arm. Your body tissues may have been elastic enough up to now to just about tolerate this, but perhaps no longer (one possible scenario). I find that switching from a conventional pillow to an L-shaped one, with the long arm alongside your trunk (allowing you to lie tilted slightly onto your side rather than flat on your belly) and the short arm between head and extended arm, gives a really comfy sleeping position.
posted by kairab at 10:04 AM on February 17, 2008

Yeah a FoaF suffered permanent nerve damage to his arm after drinking way too much and passing out on it, so it's a possibility. This would have been for hours and hours though, and it seems like alcohol is usually involved...
posted by Who_Am_I at 10:07 AM on February 17, 2008

For the record, my bed is pretty thin and hard, which in my mind obviously contributes to the problem of my arm falling asleep, but wasn't really necessary info as I was more interested in the danger of damage itself.
posted by milarepa at 10:17 AM on February 17, 2008

Falling asleep in an alcohol induced coma, (sorry - drunk) is slightly different to what kairab is suggesting. So called Saturday night Palsy, people losing feeling permanently in their arm/s, is more often seen when someone passes out on a hard surface.
posted by Wilder at 10:32 AM on February 17, 2008

Dave Mustaine was injured a few years back due to this.

While he eventually recuperated, it makes you think twice about how you sleep. ;)
posted by ydnagaj at 11:44 AM on February 17, 2008

So, for my arm to be seriously damaged I need to be a rock star or an alcoholic passed out on the floor? Am I reading this right?

Just kidding. So, serious damage can come from my stupid sleeping habits. It's possible. It happens. Crap.
posted by milarepa at 11:58 AM on February 17, 2008

It's been four years now, but back when I was heavily addicted to OxyContin I used to deal with this on a daily basis, so I at least can empathize with your fear. It wasn't that I was nodding out at odd angles or anything, I would fall asleep in a normal position in bed but nonetheless each morning I would wake up with a totally dead (and I mean, dead) limb.

The first time it happened it was my right leg; I woke up and got out of bed and when I went to stand up I fell flat on my face. I had no mobility or feeling whatsoever from the waist down and eventually had to drag myself on my stomach like a slug to get to the living room (where my pills were). Most times, though, it was an arm. I swear, it was like having a salami hanging off my shoulder. I could twist my torso and make it flop around, but that was it. Then I would have to get high one-handed. To snort an Oxy you've got to strip the time release coating off it, then pulverize, then chop it into a fine powder, then roll up a dollar bill to snort it with. As you can probably imagine, all of this was exceedingly difficult to do one-handed (the dollar bill rolling part, especially). And this first thing in the morning when I'm sick as a dog. It made an already pretty miserable existence just that much worse.

Every morning I was scared to death that the dead limb wasn't going to come back to life and they would take me to the hospital and Requiem-for-a-Dream-me with the circular saw. Needless to say, I didn't wind up losing a limb and it was for the best as this withering, unrelenting fear of eventual amputation contributed to my decision to seek treatment.

Sooooo...anyway, yeah. That's that.

Good luck and shit!
posted by The Straightener at 12:37 PM on February 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Well, if it's waking you up that's a good thing. Obviously it's more of a problem if you're enhanced and unable to gain consciousness. From what I could find online, the consensus seems to be neuropraxia less than 4h is reversible, more than 8h irreversible. Of course there are a lot of variables and nothing is really that simple.
posted by sero_venientibus_ossa at 1:17 PM on February 17, 2008

I have had on-and-off cubital tunnel syndrome for a few years (compression of the ulnar nerve at the elbow) and certainly sleeping with arms tightly flexed contributed to it. They even make padded arm splints to stop you sleeping that way. I found a giant teddy bear works better, but YMMV.
posted by Rumple at 1:23 PM on February 17, 2008

For people who snore, they say to affix a tennis ball or something to the back of your nightshirt, to keep you from rolling over onto your back. You're probably just sleeping on your arm, so maybe some geeky armband contraption could be of help until your sleeping contortions change.

Not a big deal. I'm in the same boat as Rumple, and have found that I need to sleep roughly in the "hugging Yao Ming" position in order to avoid waking up with buzzing in my hands and arms.
posted by Hildago at 1:38 PM on February 17, 2008

The usual reply to this question is that people move around so much during sleep that normal undrugged people don't stay in one position long enough to do damage. Sorry - can't find a web reference.
posted by Idcoytco at 2:31 PM on February 17, 2008

Same question, previously on AskMe.
posted by penguin pie at 2:04 AM on February 18, 2008

Another anecdote: This has happened to me my whole life and I'm (apparently) damage free. I wake up sometimes terrified because someone's hand is underneath my pillow, so I get numb enough to lose sensation completely. My hand is more or less normal color, but it takes a minute or two before I can really move it.

I got a softer mattress and it happens a lot less now, so next time you're mattress shopping aim softer.
posted by robinpME at 1:16 PM on February 18, 2008

I was wondering the same thing in regard to meditation. I sit in full lotus and my legs fall asleep after about 25-30 minutes. Then I usually change to half-lotus or something similar. Or change the order of legs. Once I meditated for about 5 hours but I kept changing sitting posture. Every once in a while my arm would be asleep after I wake up. In regard to this happening in sleep I think it's not a problem because the body is sensitive enough to change position when it needs it, so slight falling asleep is ok. During lotus meditation I plan to eventually try this: spend 45 minutes in Lotus (in fact I think I have spent a bit over that once but I don't remember whether my leg felt bad for a long time or not so I'd start at the same time). Then if all goes well I'll increase time in 15-minute increments. The idea is that if it's permanently damaging, it would give you some warning at first, i.e. said limb being sore for a few days. Also note that in Yoga it is considered as a matter of course that you can meditate for a day or more and it's encouraged to avoid movement completely. However, just to be on the safe side, seeing that we don't have a teacher who sits in lotus for days and can clear this up entirely, it's prudent to proceed in 15-minute increments. When it comes to drunken injuries, that's of course completely different because the whole point is that you're conscious during meditation, and your limbs are in proper positions. Also there was a post above mentioning 'taylor's seating position', I believe that's not the same as lotus. It's cross-legged position but not locked and with feet not facing up. It's also sometimes called 'turkish seating' and there is a name for it in Yoga as well, but I don't remember it. In that position legs don't fall asleep because they're not locked. Lotus is much harder and most taylors would be unable to do it without a very long and concentrated practice. HTH!
posted by rainy at 11:23 PM on February 18, 2008

Not a complete answer to your question, but if your limb doesn't recover even after a few hours, you could still be ok. I got a tattoo a few years ago on my inner bicep and the after about an hour in a very stressful, twisted position, my whole arm was asleep. I didn't regain full mobility without the pins-and-needles feeling for nearly 3 days. If it didn't get progressively better each day I would have seen a doctor.
posted by enobeet at 8:58 AM on February 19, 2008

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