The Pencil Test You Should Do To Your Body At Least Once A Year (And Why It's So Important)

The human body has unique ways of letting us know when something is wrong, like when your immune system acts up with hives when you come into contact with allergens or when poor eyesight alerts you of glaucoma. 

There are some things though, like numbness in your feet, that are a little more difficult to catch. And no, we're not referring to that time when you sat cross-legged at yoga class and lost feeling in your legs. Losing sensation in your feet can happen for a number of different reasons like diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage brought on my high blood sugar levels), chronic alcohol abuse, a herniated disk, Lyme disease, sciatica, spinal cord injury, and autoimmune diseases like lupus. One of the ways in which multiple sclerosis affects your body is also through numbness in your feet. 

Luckily there's a simple pencil test you can do with your body (with the help of a partner, friend, or loved one), to find out if you've lost feeling in your feet. As explained by a family physician and associate professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, Dr. Jennifer Caudle, via The Healthy, "Touching toes and feet with a sharp but safe object often tells us how well our nerves and sensation is ... If you don't feel sharp objects appropriately at your toes, it can be a sign that you have nerve damage." 

Why the pencil test is important

The reason the pencil test is so important is because of the effect diabetes has on your body. In addition to causing your blood sugar levels to rise, diabetes can damage your nerves, blood vessels, heart, kidneys, eyes, gums, and feet, especially when left untreated. You can easily become injured while walking around barefoot and have a cut or sore go untreated and become infected when you don't have sensation in your extremities. On top of not knowing when a wound might require care, losing sensation in your feet can also affect your sense of balance.

In the case of spine issues, a herniated disk, or sciatica, nerve damage that reaches your feet can alert your healthcare provider of the extent of the damage. With multiple sclerosis, numb face, body, hands, and feet are common and preliminary symptoms (via National Multiple Sclerosis Society). At the end of the day, whatever the underlying condition, a pencil test can alert you of it and help you get the treatment that you need. 

How to do the pencil test

It's best if you can rope a loved one into helping you out for a few minutes for the pencil test. To start off, take off any footwear you might have on — like socks, shoes, or bath slippers — and lay back on a couch or bed with your feet outstretched (via Diabetes U.K.). Close your eyes and try to relax. Have the person helping you do the test sit close to you.

Get your partner to first indicate — by firmly touching and speaking out loud — which foot is your right and which is your left. The pencil test involves touching only six of your ten toes (three in each foot). When your eyes are closed, your loved one or friend will gently touch the tips of your toes (in an order they can remember and note down) with the tip of a pencil or their index finger. Some recommend touching the first, third, and last toes in each foot. You only have to let them know which foot they are touching by saying it was either the right or left one. 

The pencil test doesn't always have to involve a pencil. You can ask your partner to lightly brush their fingertips to your toes for no longer than a second and very lightly (like a feather brushing against the skin), per Diabetes U.K. This is called the Ipswich Touch Test.

Once the test is done, your partner will refer to their notes and see if you got 5-6 touches correct. If you did, then there's nothing to worry about. If you fail to recognize two or more of the touches, this might be indicative of losing sensation in your feet. It could be a symptom of a condition like diabetes you shouldn't ignore. It's important that you visit your doctor who can do additional tests to find out what could be wrong.