Numbness and Tingling As a Symptom of Multiple Sclerosis

Parasthesia Can Affect Quality of Life

Pins and Needle Sensations are Commin in Multiple Sclerosis
Pins and Needle Sensations are Commin in Multiple Sclerosis. ozgurdonmaz/Getty Images

Numbness and tingling are two of the most common symptoms of multiple sclerosis. In fact, they may have been what led to your diagnosis, your first symptoms. While frightening, they are usually not as alarming or disabling as motor symptoms (like falling or dropping things).

What Do Numbness and Tingling Really Feel Like?

Most commonly referred to as “numbness” or “tingling,” loss of sensation or abnormal sensations are two of the most common MS symptoms that people seek help for.

When a person with MS describes sensory symptoms they may be experiencing one of the following:

  • Numbness ("loss of sensation")
  • Pins and needles (called paresthesia)
  • Burning
  • Severe itchiness
  • Tingling, buzzing, vibrating, or throbbing sensations

Sensory symptoms can be transient (lasting for just a little while) or last for a long time. In addition, some sensory symptoms cause only mild discomfort or are simply annoying. But others may be frankly painful.

Some people with MS experience allodynia, meaning they experience pain when touched with things that normally do not cause pain like their clothes or a friendly touch on the arm. In other words, everyone has his or her own special form of sensory disturbances in MS.

It's also important to note that numbness and tingling can occur anywhere in the body and present a variety of problems based on their location. For example, if your feet are affected, you may experience problems walking because of pain, sensory ataxia, and interference with proprioception.

If your hands are affected, you may experience problems with writing, fine motor movements, or holding things.

Sensory problems, especially numbness of the genitalia, can cause sexual dysfunction and paresthesias of the tongue may cause problems speaking, such as dysarthria, or detecting the temperature of food.

Another common type of MS-related sensory disturbance is the "MS Hug," which causes tightness or squeezing around the trunk or extremities.

It's interesting to note that sensory disturbances tend to be worse at night. A good rule of thumb is to ensure your bedroom is cool, as this may help ease your symptoms. That being said, if the numbness and tingling significantly disturb your sleep, you may need to talk to your doctor about a sleep aid or specific treatment for the paresthesia.

What Causes Sensory Symptoms in MS?

Sensory symptoms in MS are caused by lesions of the brain or spinal cord, meaning they occur as a result of demyelination of the nerve fibers that carry sensory information about the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) to the body and vice versa.

Often sensory disturbances occur as part of a pseudoexacerbation, a temporary increase in symptoms caused by an external factor. Usually, this is a result of MS-related heat intolerance or MS fatigue. If this is the case, the sensation should go away or greatly lessen in intensity once you are cool and/or rested.

Managing Numbness and Tingling in Multiple Sclerosis

While there are no specific medications to treat numbness, there are things you can do to try and prevent it.

For instance, try to recognize what triggers your numbness and avoid that in the future (for example, getting over-heated or over-exercising).

Be reassured too that while your numbness may be uncomfortable or distracting, it is not as worrisome of a symptom to doctors as, for example, loss of vision, falling, or balance problems.

That being said, if your numbness is new, severe, and/or disabling, it may be a sign of an MS relapse. In that instance, be sure to notify your doctor, as you may need corticosteroids.

Finally, if your sensory disturbances are painful or bothersome to the point they are affecting your functioning or quality of life, you may benefit from a medication normally used to treat neuropathic pain like Cymbalta (duloxetine) or Neurontin (gabapentin).

Sources:

Birnbaum, M.D. George. (2013). Multiple Sclerosis: Clinician’s Guide to Diagnosis and Treatment, 2nd Edition. New York, New York. Oxford University Press.

National MS Society. Numbness or Tingling.

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