Five-inch stilettos, too-heavy handbags, a wedding dress that seemingly weighed as much as a small child — Parmeeta Ghoman admits she’s no stranger to suffering for fashion. “I’m the kind of person who buys shoes two sizes too small just because they’re cute — and they’re on sale,” says Ghoman, who's 28 and lives outside of San Francisco.
But when she wore a pair of super-tight skinny jeans to dinner with friends in December, she noticed an odd tingly sensation running up and down her thighs. And when she got up to walk around, things got weirder. She felt like she was almost "floating," because she couldn't feel her legs. “It felt really strange — it felt like my leg had gone to sleep,” Ghoman says.
Ghoman’s skin-tight denim may have caused a temporary bout of a nerve condition called meralgia paresthetica, also known as “tingling thigh syndrome.” The condition can happen when constant pressure — in Ghoman's case, from the skin-tight denim — cuts off the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve, causing a numb, tingling or burning sensation along the thigh.
Typically, sufferers of the nerve condition include construction workers or police officers with heavy, low-slung belts, pregnant women or obese people; it also can result from a pulled-tight seat belt in a car accident.
But over the last several years, experts say they’ve been seeing more young women at a healthy weight complain of symptoms. The culprit: too-tight jeans.
“The nerve, in some people, is susceptible to compression,” says Dr. John England, a New Orleans neurologist and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. The femoral cutaneous nerve, he explains, runs from the outside of the pelvis and through the thigh. “It is a pure sensory nerve — it doesn’t go to muscles or provide strength. Anything that is tight around there could potentially compress the nerve that goes there.”
Pair those skinny jeans with a pair of sky-high heels, and your risk for upsetting this particular nerve increases, as Ghoman discovered the hard way. Dr. William Madosky, a chiropractic physician in Richmond Heights, Mo., says that high heels increase the chance for the numbing sensation because the teetering shoes tilt the pelvis forward, increasing the pressure on the nerve.
Of course, this isn't the first time that blue jeans have been considered a health hazard. The super low-rise jeans that were especially popular in the late 90s and early 2000s were also linked to meralgia paresthetica. And in the 1970s, rumors circulated of snug jeans causing infertility in men and yeast infections in women.
But for those suffering from tingly thighs, there is little risk for permanent damage, most experts say. “Typically it’s not permanent,” Madosky says. “The key is, you remove the pressure, and the nerve regenerates.”
Experts say it's never been a problem to convince women suffering from numb thighs to change their fashion habits — most of them are so relieved to have found an explanation for their sudden tingles they're glad to switch to roomier pants.
But scary health tales aren’t enough to scare most fashion-conscious women from wearing their favorite skinny jeans. “It doesn't make me hesitate to wear my jeans— the same way I don't hesitate to wear the shoes I wear,” says Abby Gardener, editor of Fashionista.com, who has owned 10 pairs of skinny jeans and currently owns more than 30 jeans in all.
Usually, Ghoman would agree with her. She says of herself and her friends, “We buy things, we know they’re going to hurt — but they’re going to look good. We say, oh well, it looks good, so it’s fine."
But this tingling thighs thing was too extreme, even for Ghoman. After that one night of floating legs, she stuffed those jeans in a drawer and hasn’t worn them since. But recently, she's considering an alternative to those supertight skinny jeans.
“Have you heard of these things — they’re called jeggings? Or treggings?” she asks. She's talking about a type of leggings made to look like super-tight jeans. “I haven’t tried them yet, but people are saying they’re comfortable.”