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Our senses – including sight, sound, touch, taste and smell – help us interpret and understand the world around us. The brain takes in, processes and responds to this sensory information.

MS is an autoimmune condition that causes the body to attack itself, damaging the connective signals between the brain and the rest of the body. This damage means that signals from sensory information are incorrectly interpreted by the body or trigger sensory changes or altered sensations for no apparent reason.

While it may be hard to describe, don’t hesitate to tell your doctor or MS nurse if you experience any of the symptoms outlined below. They can help you find strategies or medication to manage sensory symptoms and live more comfortably.

Sensory symptoms and MS

If you have MS, you may experience a change in your skin known as sensory symptoms. It could be a sensation that feels strange or could be hard to describe. For example, some people say it can feel like pressure or a sensation of something that’s not there, such as insects crawling over your skin, being squeezed, a sharp sting or a shock.

Common sensory symptoms include:

  • numbness
  • pins and needles
  • tightness
  • itching
  • burning
  • prickling
  • crawling
  • tingling.

These sensations can happen across any part of the body, however it’s usually in the face, arms, body or legs.

While you may not be able to see the causes of these sensations, the perception and sensation felt is very real to the person experiencing it. For example, you may feel itchy but not have any visible rash or irritation on the skin.

Sensory symptoms may be uncomfortable and can impact your movement or ability to do tasks, such as writing, walking, or holding objects safely.

What causes sensory symptoms?

MS damages nerves that interpret incoming signals. To make up for this, the brain attempts to relate it to something it can imagine or has experienced before, such as being squeezed or feeling itchy.

For example, if you feel a tingling sensation in your fingertips, it’s because there’s damage to the nerves that report to your brain about your hand – not damage to the actual hand tissue itself.

Sensory symptoms can range from mildly uncomfortable to painful. It may be set off by triggers such as heat or touch or happen for no obvious reason.

Sensory symptoms can be broken into three categories of nerve pain, depending on their intensity:

  • Paranesthesia – annoying, unpleasant or unusual sensations, such as numbness or tingling, which can either be triggered or happen for no reason.
  • Allodynia – extreme sensitivity to touch, where something like a light touch or mild changes in temperature feel painful.
  • Dysesthesia – more intense and sometimes painful feelings which happen spontaneously.

If you’re experiencing MS sensory symptoms, talk to your GP (general practitioner) or MS nurse or neurologist at your next visit.

How to manage sensory symptoms

A healthcare professional can help assess your sensory symptoms and create a strategy to manage them.

Depending on the severity and type of symptom you’re experiencing, they may suggest treatments, medication or occupational therapy.

You may also be able to make lifestyle changes and avoid triggers to reduce your symptoms and their impact.

This page has been reviewed and approved by Executive Manager Client Engagement and Wellbeing Jodi Haartsen. Jodi is a registered MS Nurse who has helped thousands of patients over her 20 years’ experience at Eastern Health MS service in Australia, in several roles including nurse educator, research nurse and nurse practitioner. Jodi is the 2022 winner of the global MS Brain Health Leader Award in the Independent Healthcare Professionals category.

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