Many people with multiple sclerosis (MS) often experience a change in feelings in their skin, known as sensory symptoms or altered sensations. If you’ve felt something in your skin that feels strange and is hard to describe, you’re not alone.
With the right information and support, sensory symptoms can be minimised or managed effectively to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.
Sensory symptoms or altered sensations are common for people with MS. These changes can be difficult to describe, as there are typically no physical symptoms associated with them, and it’s not something that anyone else can see or feel. Some of the more common sensory symptoms include:
These sensations can occur in any part of the body (on one or both sides), usually the face, body, arms or legs but sometimes also the genital area. This can impact your movement or usage, for example, numb feet can affect walking and numb hands can affect your ability to write, dress or hold objects safely.
These odd feelings are one of the invisible symptoms of MS. They can be difficult to explain, so people can hesitate to mention them. They are very real to the person who experiences them, but others may be unaware. For example, you may feel itchy but without a visible rash or skin irritation.
These uncomfortable, sensory symptoms (known as dysaesthesia, paraesthesia or allodynia depending on their impact) are the result of damage of the nerves caused by MS and so the brain can no longer interpret incoming signals. To deal with this, the brain tries to relate the signal to something the body has experienced before, like being squeezed or burnt, or to something it can imagine.
For example, if the feeling is in your fingertips, there’s no damage to the hand tissues but there’s damage to the nerves that report to your brain about your hand, which is why it seems like there’s something wrong with your fingertips.
If you have sensory symptom concerns talk to your neurologist, MS Nurse or GP. You can discuss whether:
Some people with MS also experience numbness or reduced sensation in the genital area. This can diminish pleasurable sensations or make them feel uncomfortable. Discuss this with your partner and with your health professional to develop a tailored plan.
Your health professional will be able to assess the symptoms and advise the best treatment and/or management options, based on your personal situation.
Sensory symptoms may go away completely without treatment or return periodically. Depending on the type and severity of sensory symptoms you experience, your health professional may suggest treatment. In all cases, managing trigger factors or changing how you carry out daily tasks may be helpful.
Some management options include:
Unfortunately, there are few options available to directly treat sensory symptoms. If the sensory symptom feels painful, the usual pain reducing strategies, including specific pain medication to treat neuropathic (“nerve”) pain may be helpful. If sensory symptoms are interfering with your daily activities, an occupational therapist may be able to provide equipment or other suggestions. This may be particularly important for numbness of the hands and feet, which may make it difficult to perform certain tasks.
There is support available to help you manage your MS.
Your neurologist, MS Nurse or GP should be the first contact for any new and/or persistent sensory concerns, so they can perform a detailed assessment and tailor a management plan or referrals if needed.
Contact your state or territory MS organisation to access services such as MS nurses, peer support and other resources.
The following support services may be able to provide wellbeing and lifestyle advice: