Dysesthesia in Multiple Sclerosis

This burning sensation is uncomfortable—but not dangerous

elderly woman with hand pain
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More than half of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) deal with pain, according to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America (MSAA). For many of them, this pain takes on the form of dysesthesia, which is characterized by a sensation that feels like an electric shock or a bad sunburn. Sometimes dysesthesia manifests as pain caused by something that shouldn't hurt at all, such as a light touch or caress—a symptom known as allodynia.

Dysesthesia is one of several such sensations typical of MS. Others include paresthesia, feelings of “pins and needles,” buzzing, tingling, or a “creepy-crawly” sensation as if there's a bug crawling on your skin, and hyperpathia, an increased sensitivity to pain that's also sometimes called hyperalgesia.

Pain from dysesthesia is neurogenic. In other words, it's caused by damage to nerves in the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord. Besides interrupting or blocking these signals, MS also causes “cross-talk” between nerves, producing a kind of “static.” It's bothersome, but it's rarely serious or long lasting; dysesthesia tends to come and go. But it still needs to be addressed. Here's what dysesthesia feels like and what can be done to put out the fire.

Feeling the Burn

The discomfort or pain of dysesthesia most often affects the feet or legs, but it also can be felt in the arms and torso.

It's unpleasant, for sure, but it's not dangerous. However, there is a form of dysesthesia known as the “MS hug” that's more troublesome, an intense sensation of aching, burning, or “girdling” around your abdomen or chest area. But even the MS hug is unlikely to lay you low, unless it's so severe you can't carry on your daily activities.

Dealing With Dysesthesia

Treating dysesthesia is usually involves some simple, straightforward remedies that you can at home:

  • If pain or burning is located in the hands or legs, you can wear compression gloves or stockings. These convert the sensation of pain to a less uncomfortable feeling of pressure. These products are available at drugstores.
  • Another way to make the pain feel like something else is to apply warm compresses to skin.
  • Tylenol or another form of over-the-counter (OTC) acetaminophen, taken daily or as needed, also can help relieve dysesthesia (with a doctor's OK, of course). NSAIDS, such as ibuprofen, won't relieve this type of pain. Opiods aren't helpful either, according to the MSAA.

If these tactics don't provide enough relief, certain medications can help, according to the MSAA. These are:

  • Medications typically prescribed to treat seizure disorders, such as Neurontin (gabapentin) and Lyrica (pregabalin); Tegretol (carbamazepine) and Dilantin (phenytoin).
  • Anti-anxiety drugs, including Cymbalta (duloxetine ) and Klonopin (clonazepam).
  • Tricyclic antidepressants such as Elavil (amitriptyline), Pamelor (nortriptyline), and Norpramin (desipramine).

Sources:

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

Mayo Clinic. "Symptoms: Numbness." 2016

Multiple Sclerosis Association of America. "Pain." 2013.

National Multiple Sclerosis Society. "Sensory Symptoms and Pain."

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