Though it’s a condition notable enough to warrant a proper name (paresthesia) having one’s arm or leg go numb from sitting in one position too long is rarely a precursor for anything medically serious. Having your leg “fall asleep” may be uncomfortable but it is common enough to have inspired its own Benny Hill fart joke:
She: “That meeting was far too long. We were sitting so long my little bottom went to sleep”
He: “I know – I could hear it snoring”
I didn’t make the connection between the sitting and the numbing until I was midway thorough seventh grade and I finally realized the sensation was not some sort of exotic malady or extra-terrestrial parasite devouring my nervous system. It became a source of entertainment on those days when the slurred speech and red nose our teacher brought back from lunch signaled that the rest of the day would involve educational movies – I would periodically tuck one foreleg under another until numbness set in, then unfold them to trigger pins and needles tickle-y enough to keep me awake through the second reel of “A World without Zinc!”
Like most other aspects of my life the novelty off the condition decreased when other more interesting aspects of puberty began to manifest themselves but since then there have been at least three times when the unexpected onset of Paresthesia had quite an impact on my life:
May 1971: Hidden Lake (Alaska) Graduation was mere days away when I joined with a small mob of young men from our congregation for a weekend of camping at Hidden Lake; a truly epic campground in a land that is the very definition of epic. I faintly recall that there was some sort of spiritual theme to be discussed during the outing but most of the time was spent running up and down the rocky cliffs that surrounded the campground, paddling canoes in Hidden Lake itself, and climbing the gently sloping face of Hideout Hill that faced to the north. It was as physically tiring as two-a-day football practice had been or airborne training would prove to be in the future, and when I dropped on my cot one night I was asleep before my head hit my pillow.
…but vague nightmares about giant snakes scared me awake early the next morning, and as I scrambled to escape my dream serpents I realized with sheer terror that something was holding me firmly to the cot. It wasn’t until I fought my way awake that I realized what was really going on: when I threw myself onto the cot the night before I had absent mindedly draped my right arm over the cot’s header bar and slept so deeply that I had stirred little if any through the night, causing my right arm to not just “go asleep” but to go into suspended animation. A reading list that included way too much Conan and John Carter of Mars generated the serpentine dream images to account for my arm’s immobility.
March 1977: Camp Williams (Utah) Similar to my sojourn at Hidden Lake only by weekend scheduling and an outdoor venue, the tactical exercise in which I was participating was designed to prepare us for advanced training at FT Lewis WA later that summer – and because of my size, strength and generally annoying gung-ho attitude I was assigned to carry the squad’s M60, a Cold War era machine gun based on the WW2 German MG42.
The scenario called for my squad to set up an ambush for another group that collectively lacked any sense of direction, leaving us to stay hunkered down and waiting much longer than expected. Following the old soldier’s tradition of getting sleep whenever possible I rested my head on my arms which were crossed over the cover and feed assembly of the M60 and promptly fell asleep.
…only to be abruptly kicked awake seemingly moments later by my squad leader. Our opponents had finally fumbled their way along the darkened path to the kill-zone in front of us, but when I reached for the trigger my right arm fell to the ground beside the gun, my arm having gone totally numb while folded on top of the M60. Harsh whispers and a second Vibram-soled kick convinced me to try making a left-handed shot but rather than squeeze the trigger for doctrinally correct three-round bursts I loudly pow-pow-powed through an entire belt of blank cartridges. During the post-ambush critique I was “smoked” for lack of fire discipline but then immediately praised for my aggressive attitude as manifested by all my yelling. Little did the lane grader know that it wasn’t an aggressive mindset but rather a reaction to the “pins & needles” sensation caused by restored circulation that was aggravated by the vibration and recoil of the machine gun.
February 2020: Clarksville TN Aging brings on a plethora of ailments both major and minor, but one of the most annoying is the microscopic capacity to which my bladder has shrunk, which means I visit the hallway bathroom several times a night. As a way to pass the time we stock the bathroom with reading material (in this case a Kindle) and it is not uncommon for me to get caught up in a story and continue reading long after the need for diversion is gone.
That was the case early one morning when I realized with a start that judging by the page count I’d spent more than an hour “distracted”. I clicked the Kindle off and started to stand up…and that’s as far as I got because not one but both legs had gone to sleep. I tried to stand a second time but was met with the same results, so I tried to pull myself up by grabbing the vanity, only to abruptly let go and thud back down to the seat when I found that the vanity wasn’t as securely fastened to the wall as I’d thought.
I started to panic, but then in a flash of inspiration I grabbed the fabric of my right pajama leg and started to bounce the leg up and down in an effort to get the circulation going and some strength restored. After what seemed forever the feeling began to return to my leg, so I leaned on my cane and started to stand up when
“David, are you OK in there? It’s been a long time. Are you sick?”
Most people revere the inventor of the bathroom fan for providing a convenient white noise to mask otherwise embarrassing noises during routine visits. I praised his name to Heaven for drowning out the high-pitched “EEEPPPP!” scared out of me by my Beautiful Saxon Princess’ abrupt knock on the bathroom door. I murmured some clever retort (URKK!) as I adjusted my T-shirt and sweatpants and then shuffled back to bed, my sweetheart helping me prop myself into my slightly contorted but customary sleeping position.
…but as I was falling asleep I had enough presence of mind to make a short list of corrective measures to be taken in the hallway bathroom first thing the next morning:
- Securely nail the vanity to the wall.
- Change the settings on my Kindle to show the time.
- Get a railing mounted to the wall so when paresthesia strikes again I can still pull myself up.