While it may seem alarming, this phenomenon is probably more common than you think. Have you ever spontaneously felt a sensation like a zap, a jolt, or a tingle out of the blue? Such sensations are more common during perimenopause when fluctuating hormone levels can influence the way our nerves fire, but this phenomenon can have many other causes.
Vital electricity, or electricity in the human body, is a fascinating subject. We all have electric pulses coursing through our nervous systems, powering the connections that ensure we can move, think, and function. The sensation of an electric shock is a common side-effect of, for example, hitting your elbow against something hard, thus aggravating the ulnar nerve, which runs along the length of your arm and is quite close to the surface of the skin at the inner elbow. However, when a strong feeling of electric shock occurs seemingly without cause, it may indicate a more serious underlying health condition.
There are a wide variety of reasons you might suddenly experience a sensation that resembles an electric shock. This is a common occurrence and is usually benign. Unusual temporary sensations such as tingling, burning, numbness, pins and needles, and even electric-shock-like feelings fall under the umbrella term paraesthesia, or disordered sensations.
Sadly, people who report this symptom as bothersome are not always taken seriously. What may turn out to be an indication of a medical problem is often downplayed as static electricity or “just your imagination”. Nevertheless, electric shock-like sensations are a very real symptom that can have many potential causes.
The most common cause for tingling and zapping sensations in the body is pressure on the nerves or a period of poor circulation. Our bodies have a complex network of nerves that transmit signals to and from the brain. In a very real sense, our nerves allow us to function and interact with the world. When a nerve becomes compressed or damaged, it can misfire or send faulty signals that result in shock-like sensations.
It doesn’t take much to pinch a nerve. Nerves run throughout our bodies and are designed to be affected by our everyday movements and experiences. We have the most nerve endings per square cm in our fingertips, eyes, navels, nipples, lips, and genitalia. In some places nerves are closer to the skin or located in places that are more susceptible to being pinched.
Carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrists is a common ailment, usually caused by repetitive hand and wrist movements such as typing on a computer keyboard without wrist support and using non-ergonomic mouse pads, or playing the piano, or using a power drill. The tissues become inflamed and exert pressure on the median nerve inside the carpal tunnel of the wrist, reducing or blocking its ability to function. Overuse of any body part can damage the nerves over time if there is not enough rest and stretching in between active sessions.
Physical injuries, such as fractures, dislocations, or trauma to the nerves, can lead to paraesthesia and other nerve conditions. Be especially careful if you feel zapping sensations after trauma to your head, neck, or spine, and seek help immediately.
Degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis can cause inflammation and facilitate the development of bone spurs, usually in the joints or the spine. Inflammation can irritate the nearby nerves, while bone spurs physically press on them, causing unusual sensations.
Peripheral neuropathy is another condition directly linked to the sensation of electric shock in the body. When the peripheral nerves—all nerves located beyond the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system or CNS), which receive stimuli and convey them to the CNS—are damaged, feeling in the body can change. Peripheral nerves are responsible for transmitting signals such as touch, temperature, and pain. If any of these nerves are significantly damaged or influenced, your perception of the environment and your bodily sensations can change, even presenting unexpected sensations such as jolts of electricity, tingling, or pain.
Peripheral neuropathy is a common symptom of diabetes. The elevated blood sugar levels that characterize diabetes can damage the walls of the vasa nervorum, the small blood arteries that provide blood supply to the nerves. Over time reduced blood flow and oxygen supply to the nerves can cause serious damage. Diabetes also messes with the overall metabolism and other processes in the body.
The most common areas of the body affected by peripheral neuropathy are the feet and palms of the hands, sometimes the strange sensations of electric shock, twitching or numbness are localized exactly there; this is a common symptom of diabetes that can lead to serious nerve damage and even necrosis.
Diabetic neuropathy is usually treated with prescription medications, exercise, and a whole foods plant-based diet. If you notice prolonged symptoms of neuropathy, especially if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic—including gestational diabetes during pregnancy—consult your healthcare provider and describe your symptoms. Lifestyle changes to improve your diet and include a sensible exercise regimen to your daily routine can help.
Other medical conditions that can elicit electric shock-like sensations, sometimes even as early symptoms, include:
Most of us have experienced a jolt of static electricity at some point. This is when you suddenly get a small shock from an object in your environment, such as a door handle, a wool sweater, or another person. This is a well-known phenomenon and can be the basis of fun physics experiments with children.
Static electricity is the build-up of an electric charge on the surface of an object. All substances in the universe are made up of atoms, which in turn are made up three types of tiny particles: of negatively charged electrons, positively charged protons, and neutral neutrons. Elemental atoms have an equal number of protons and electrons and are therefore electrically neutral. However, electrons are not bound to their atoms as strongly as the other particles and can sometimes transfer from one surface to another when two objects are rubbed together. If there is no circuit for the electrons to flow through, a static charge builds up until it can be discharged again. A surplus of electrons creates a negative charge, while a lack of electrons creates a positive charge. Oppositely charged atoms are attracted to each other, while atoms with the same charge repel each other.
For example, if you shuffle across a carpet made of nylon or polyester fibres wearing shoes with rubber or plastic soles, you may pick up excess electrons that will discharge the next time you touch something metal (a material that conducts electricity) or something with a slightly positive charge. Another example of static electricity is when your hair stands on end after you take off your wool hat in the winter or rub your head with a balloon or a Styrofoam cup. This is because the hairs on your head have collected excess electrons and, because they all have the same negative charge, they are repelling each other.
Hormones, the body’s chemical messengers, regulate our physiological processes and influence how we perceive the world around us. While hormones do not directly generate static electricity, they can indirectly influence factors that contribute to static electricity build-up on the surface of your skin.
As we all know from puberty, hormones can directly influence the condition of your skin. During certain hormonal fluctuations, such as puberty or pregnancy, as well as the menstrual cycle, the skin can undergo changes that also affect its electrical conductivity. Changes in the skin’s moisture levels, pH balance, or oil production can impact its ability to conduct electricity.
Water conducts electricity. Dry skin has reduced moisture content making it more difficult for electricity to flow, so your skin becomes more prone to accumulating a static charge. This increases the likelihood that your body will produce an electrostatic discharge the next time you touch something.
Sweating moistens the skin, enhancing its electrical conductivity and reducing the build-up of static charge. However, hormonal changes can influence the amount and patterns of sweating, which may impact how often you experience static electricity.
If you are experiencing electrostatic shocks on a regular basis, consider your environment and personal care routine. Heating or cooling a room can dry the air. Airing out your rooms regularly can help regulate the humidity and using a humidifier or getting some houseplants that naturally detoxify and humidify the air, will also help. Synthetic materials such as nylon, and natural wool are the most common culprits behind static electricity. Using moisturizers or lotions can also help improve skin moisture and reduce static charge build-up.
What are electric shocks in the body during perimenopause and menopause?
Like during puberty when hormone production escalates, considerable changes take place in a woman’s body during perimenopause, and just like during puberty some of the symptoms can be quite unpleasant, including feeling electric shocks in the body.
Fluctuations in oestrogen and progesterone levels can affect nerve function. Hormonal changes can also lead to decreased blood flow to the nerves, which may contribute to nerve damage and peripheral neuropathy. This is why some women experience electric shock sensations in menopause. These sensations experienced are often described as brief, shooting, or stabbing pains that can occur in different parts of the body, such as the arms, legs, hands, or feet. They vary in frequency and intensity and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as tingling, numbness, or the sensation of burning.
Like hot flashes, mild shock-like sensations are well-known symptoms of perimenopause. However, hormone-related tingling and jolting sensations can also occur in menstruating women.
Oestrogen levels rise and fall in the various phases of the cycle. Some women experience increased nerve sensitivity during certain phases that can manifest as shock-like sensations. Hormonal changes can also affect blood flow and fluid retention in the body, causing bloating and swelling. This can sometimes lead to nerve compression that may contribute to numbness, tingling, or shock-like sensations in certain areas.
We have already discussed the more common electric jolts we can feel connected to nerve function and hormone fluctuation. Some women, however, experience another very specific shock-like sensation in the reproductive organs, which is colloquially known as lightning crotch.
The lining of the uterus, as well as the cervix consist of muscles and certain parts contain many nerve endings. Changes in hormonal levels, inflammation, or any type of irritation to the reproductive organs—including gynaecological procedures such as the pap smear—can increase nerve sensitivity and lead to sharp pain in the cervix or vagina, like a jolt of lightning.
During menstruation, the uterus contracts repeatedly to expel the endometrial lining as menstrual blood. Strong or intense contractions can sometimes feel like electric shocks. Similarly, during pregnancy, as the uterus grows and prepares for childbirth, contractions can cause similar sensations.
Other common reasons behind zapping sensations in the uterus and cervix areas include:
Feeling a small electric jolt in your body, here and there, now and then, is nothing to worry about. It happens to pretty much everyone at some point. If, however, the sensations are strong, occur frequently, or are accompanied by other symptoms, ask your doctor to help you figure out what is going on and if it needs to be addressed.
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