MS attacks the nerves, so anyone with MS is apt to experience various types of altered feeling or touch.
Some of the most distressing and even frightening symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) are sensory disturbances — sensations that can range from numbness to tingling to burning pain. They’re also common.
Because these sensory symptoms are caused by the nerve damage that is a part of MS, anyone with MS is at risk of developing them.
But a range of strategies can help with managing MS sensory issues.
Loss of sensation is experienced as numbness in the affected area or body part.
Abnormal sensations may include:
-Pins and needles
Painful sensations include:
-Hypersensitivity to touch
-The “MS hug,” a band-like tightness or girdling feeling in the chest or abdomen that can result from nerve damage or from spasms in the small muscles between the ribs
Lhermitte’s sign, an acute, electric-shock-like sensation running down the spine and into the limbs that occurs when the head is bent forward
Numbness, abnormal sensations, and pain can affect virtually any part of the body: the face, torso, arms, hands, legs, and feet. The symptoms may come and go, or they may come and stay.
“If they’re symptoms caused by old nerve damage, they may flare up during periods of fatigue or illness, and then go away with rest and recovery,” Dr. Lublin says.
Rarely Permanent, but Potentially Dangerous
Corinne Sheh of Maynard, Massachusetts, frequently struggles with such sensory symptoms.
“My first MS symptoms were pins and needles in my legs,” says Sheh, who was diagnosed with MS in 2007 at age 25. “Now I get numbness and tingling in my right hand and a feeling of tightness around my chest — my MS hug.”
Sheh also experiences Lhermitte’s sign.”It feels like a zipper being opened from my neck down my spine,” she says.
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These symptoms rarely become permanent, but they can be dangerous. Sensory symptoms in your legs, for example, can cause a fall. Numbness in your hands can cause you to drop things and may put you at risk for being burned by scalding water. Numbness in your face may be dangerous when chewing.
For Sheh, who’s now the mother of a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old, sensory symptoms have presented new problems. “What I worry about most is falling on the stairs or dropping one of the babies,” she says.
Managing MS Sensory Issues
So what can you do? For some symptoms, medication can help. Neuropathic (nerve) pain may respond to anticonvulsant drugs such as Neurontin (gabapentin) or Lyrica (pregabalin), Lublin says. Antidepressants are also sometimes used to treat nerve pain. If sensory symptoms are due to a relapse or to new MS attacks, steroids may help to control them.
Topical capsaicin creams and ointments, which are sold over the counter, can sometimes block painful sensations in the legs, feet, hands, and arms.
Like the symptoms themselves, though, responses to the various drugs vary from person to person.
“I have never found any medications that help with my sensory symptoms,” Sheh says. “I have learned to avoid triggers like stress, fatigue, and hot, humid weather. The best treatment for me is rest and an ice pack. A swim in the ocean or a cool pool also helps.”
Heat may help, too, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society: A warm compress may turn painful sensations into warm sensations. Massage is also worth trying.
Some other ways to avoid or manage sensory symptoms include:
Avoid becoming overheated.
Get plenty of rest.
Do your best to stay healthy. Illnesses, such as colds or the flu, are common triggers for MS symptoms.
Wear pressure stockings or a tight glove, which may convert painful sensations to pressure sensations.
Wear a soft cervical collar to prevent Lhermitte’s sign.
Try cognitive behavioral therapy or hypnosis.
Meditate to lower stress and, consequently, distress.
Learning your unique triggers for sensory symptoms may be the best way to manage them. But if you’re struggling with these symptoms, they’re new, or they’re not going away, talk with your MS doctor about possible solutions.
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