Dysesthesia and Other Types of Numbness in MS

Learn What Causes Dysesthesia and How It's Treated

elderly woman with hand pain
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Dysesthesia? Numbness? If you’re like most people, “numbness” doesn’t suggest feeling pain or other sensations on your skin but rather the absence of any feeling at all. However, that’s not how doctors think about it. They divide numbness into four categories:

  • Dysesthesia: Examples include burning sensations along nerves, a feeling that your skin is sunburned, or an “electrical shock” sensation.

    Dysesthesia also includes the painful sensation doctors call allodynia: the unexpected feeling of pain from something that isn’t usually painful, such as a light touch or caress.
  • Paresthesia: Examples include feelings of “pins and needles,” buzzing, tingling, or a “creepy-crawly” sensation, as if you had a bug crawling on your skin.
  • Hyperpathia (also called hyperalgesia): This is increased sensitivity to pain.
  • Anesthesia: This is complete loss of any sensation, including pain, touch, and temperature.

Broadly speaking, dysesthesia is always unpleasant, whereas paresthesia is mostly not unpleasant.

The first three types of numbness listed above – dysesthesia, paresthesia, and hyperpathia – are common in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). The fourth type, anesthesia, is rare in MS.

Typically, these sometimes uncomfortable symptoms come and go and are seldom permanent. They may occur in just a patch of skin or in larger areas, such as your abdomen or one or both of your arms, legs, or hands.

Understanding the Pain and Discomfort of Dysesthesia

The discomfort or pain of dysesthesia most often affects your feet or legs, but it can also affect your arms and trunk area.

Despite the unpleasant feelings it causes, dysesthesia isn’t dangerous, and it’s not disabling unless it’s so severe that you can’t do daily activities.

If you have MS, you may be familiar with the often severe form of dysesthesia known as the “MS hug” -- a frequently intense sensation of aching, burning, or “girdling” around your abdomen or chest area.

Causes of Dysesthesia and Other Forms of Numbness

The damaging effects of MS disrupt the way electrical signals are transmitted in the body. In the central nervous system (CNS), nerve damage 1) interrupts or blocks electrical-signal transmission and 2) causes “cross-talk” between nerves, producing a kind of “static.” This disruption of normal electrical signaling causes sensory abnormalities, including dysesthesia.

How Is Dysesthesia Treated?

Medications that may be used to treat dysesthesia include anti-seizure (anticonvulsant) medications, antidepressants that can alter the way your CNS reacts to pain, and steroids to reduce inflammation – although these are typically reserved for occasions involving serious medical conditions rather than single symptoms.

However, medication isn’t always needed. Other forms of dysesthesia treatment include:

  • Wearing a pressure glove or stocking, which can change your feeling of pain to a feeling of pressure
  • Applying warm compresses to your skin, which can change your feeling of pain to a feeling of warmth
  • Taking over-the-counter (OTC) acetaminophen (Tylenol® and others) daily or as needed, but only if your doctor says it’s okay

As you would for any new MS symptom, contact your doctor about any form of numbness you feel.

He or she can tell you if it’s due to MS or some other cause and recommend treatment if you need it.


“Pain.” National Multiple Sclerosis Society (2016). 

 “Numbness.” MayoClinic.org (2016).  

“IASP Taxonomy: Dysesthesia.” International Association for the Study of Pain (2012).

Costello K, Thrower B, Giesser BS (Eds). “Navigating life with multiple sclerosis.”  American Academy of Neurology/Oxford University Press (2015).

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