Numbness is a common type of sensory symptom of MS. It can be complete or partial. Other unusual sensations can also occur in the face, body or extremities. Learn more about what causes numbness and how to manage it.
Reviewed by Executive Manager Client Engagement and Wellbeing Jodi Haartsen. Jodi is a registered MS Nurse Consultant with 20 years’ experience at Eastern Health MS service in Australia
When you touch something with your hand or another part of your body, your brain interprets the signal sent from where you touch, through your spinal cord and to the brain where that message is processed to be the sensation you feel.
In people with multiple sclerosis, damaged nerves in the spinal cord and brain can cause disruptions to these pathways and result in abnormal sensations, or in some people, no sensation at all, which is often described as numbness.
Altered sensations can occur in any part of the body in people living with MS and are a common symptom of MS. The most likely places they occur is the face, hands, arms, feet and legs.
Altered sensations could include feelings of pins and needles, burning, itching, electric zaps and shocks, numbness, tingling, crawling, stabbing, pricking and increased sensitivity. This is often called paresthesia. Paraesthesia, can also be called allodynia (pain or altered sensation to touch), or dysesthesia.
Lhermitte’s sign is another sensory symptom that feels like a tingle or an electrical shock sensation occurring when the neck is flexed in 55–70% of patients with MS. The sensation will often extend from the neck to the spine and in some patients to the limbs.
Numbness can be caused by different medical conditions, and it may not be clear the numbness is directly related to your MS. Your medical team will diagnose your numbness based on your symptoms, other medical history and a physical exam, which includes testing touch, temperature, reflexes and muscle function.
It may be hard to describe the sensations you're experiencing but your MS nurse or neurologist will be able to help. To understand the cause and type of your numbness, the doctor or nurse will ask about how the numbness started, where it is numb on your body and how quickly the numbness began, the events or activities you were engaged in around the time the numbness began, and if you have any other symptoms.
Tests to help establish the diagnosis may include:
Numbness is a distressing type of sensory symptom and can have a dramatic impact on a person’s emotional wellbeing and quality of life. There are many ways numbness can impact a person’s ability to do daily activities. Some examples include:
Altered sensation may come and go with relapses. The symptoms may last for hours, to weeks or be a lifetime symptom. It may get worse during heat or other factors that can impact MS symptoms.
If you’re experiencing new or concerning symptoms of altered sensation such as numbness, seek professional support from your GP (general practitioner) or MS nurse as soon as possible.
They can work with you to help understand what is causing the altered sensation and help with treatments when it causes pain or discomfort such as medications, allied health support and lifestyle changes.
Your doctor will help determine what’s causing your altered sensation and the best course of action.
Altered sensations, particularly when they cause pain, can be difficult to manage. It commonly requires a holistic team effort. Management can include lifestyle changes, medication, or allied health support.
If you do feel any altered sensation in your body, be cautious and careful. Since you’ve temporarily lost some sensation in that area, be mindful of touching or eating hot things, losing your grip or falling down.