Numbness and Tingling as a Symptom of Multiple Sclerosis

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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 Numbness and Tingling Feels 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.

While numbness is a "loss of sensation," there are a number of abnormal sensations described by people with MS like pins and needles (called paresthesias), severe itchiness, tingling, buzzing, vibrating, or throbbing. When the sensation is painful, it's called a dysesthesia (for example, burning feet).

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.

In addition, 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.

Location of Numbness and Tingling 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.

Causes of 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 pseudo-exacerbation, 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

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

1. De-Stress

Your sensory symptoms may get worse when you're stressed. In fact, just thinking about a stressful situation from your past can be enough to ratchet tingling in your feet.

Try taking a break from your stress. If you can find time to turn off that part of your brain that has you worried about finances, wondering how you are going to get everything done, or replaying an angry conversation, your symptoms may back down a little.

One strategy is doing a mini meditation. This is not an in-depth meditation, but it involves taking one or two minutes in the middle of a stressful period to close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and focus your thoughts on your breath.

Alternatively, do something that you love for at least a couple of minutes. Listen to a podcast or your favorite song. Read a couple of pages in a fun novel. Have a cup of tea. Play a game on your phone. Go for a walk around the block. Carving out a little time for self-care every day can help you manage your anxiety.

2. Try Complementary and Alternative Medicine

There are a few complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches that have helped some people with their sensory problems. Consider some of these methods.

  • Reflexology: This is a form of massage that entails pressing on certain points on the hands and feet to promote healing.
  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture involves pricking the skin with needles to relieve pain. If you're worried about the risk of acupuncture stimulating your immune system (which is not desirable, as MS is thought to be an autoimmune disease), talk to your doctor.
  • Biofeedback: To reduce your stress levels, try biofeedback, which may help your numbness and tingling.
  • A new diet: It's possible that certain foods trigger your symptoms (although this is a controversial topic). The Best Bet Diet has helped some people, for instance. Work with a dietitian to strategically pinpoint the foods that exacerbate your symptoms and designs plans to minimize your intake of them. 
  • A supplement: Low levels of vitamin B12, a deficiency that is more common in people with MS, could cause sensory symptoms. Look into getting your level checked, just to be sure, and ask your doctor whether it's a good idea to take a supplement.

3. Warm Up or Cool Down

Sometimes your feet can get either very hot or very cold (especially at night) and these temperature extremes are often accompanied by a burning or tingling sensation.

To warm up your feet, try a "wrap" that is filled with some sort of beads or beans that can be heated up in the microwave and put on any body part that is chilly. You can put one on your feet and one over your shoulders and pretend that you're at a spa. You can also stick your feet in hot water. Wearing thick socks to bed helps, too. 

Cooling down burning feet down is a little trickier. The solution can be something simple, like sticking your feet outside the sheets when you're in bed during the summer (perhaps near a fan), standing on cool bathroom tiles, or putting ice or a cold, wet washcloth on them. 

4. Use Medications 

There has been only limited success in medicating away MS-related numbness and tingling, so drugs are often considered a last resort. But if no other treatment strategies are providing you with relief, ask your doctor if one of these medications might be an option for you: Neurontin (gabapentin), Elavil (amitriptyline), or Cymbalta (duloextine). These drugs, like all drugs, do have possible side effects. However, if your numbness/tingling is truly torturing you, it may be worth trying one of these.

Of course, if your sensory symptom is new, much worse than before, or has lasted more than 24 hours, this may signal a relapse. In this case, your doctor will probably put you on a course of Solu-Medrol (after confirming a relapse with an MRI scan).

Additionally, pay attention to what triggers symptoms. For instance, try to recognize what triggers your numbness and avoid that in the future. If getting over-heated from exercise triggers your leg numbness, try walking in an air-conditioned gym instead of outdoors, or consider a cooling vest.

If you have facial numbness, be cautious when chewing food and drinking hot beverages. You want to avoid biting the inside of your mouth or tongue or burning yourself.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to tell your doctor if your chronic sensory disturbances are painful or bothersome to the point they are affecting your functioning or quality of life. 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.​​

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. (n.d.). Numbness or Tingling.

Samkoff LM, Goodman AD. Symptomatic management in multiple sclerosis. Neurol Clin. 2011 May;29(2):449-63.

 

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