Multiple sclerosis is a condition that affects the central nervous system. Its symptoms affect the nerves and can cause dysesthesia, or abnormal sensations such as burning, numbness, or itching.
In some people, multiple sclerosis (MS) may cause itching early on, even before they have received a diagnosis. Pruritus is the technical term for itching.
MS itching can range from a minor bother to a stinging itch or a feeling of having pins and needles. Unlike a regular itch, the feeling does not go away with scratching. This is because MS affects the nerves that control the area where the itch is, rather than the skin itself.
The feeling is generally brief. Some people find short-term relief by avoiding scratching and applying a cold compress to the area.
Over-the-counter remedies tend to be ineffective, as the source of the itch is not an external allergen. There are some prescription medications and lifestyle changes that may help a person control MS itching.
Why does MS cause itching?
MS affects the nerves and can cause an itching sensation.
In people with certain conditions, such as eczema, allergies, or MS, itching may be long-term and challenging to treat.
In people with MS, the itching sensation may come and go, or it may move around the body, causing itchiness in different areas. It can be unpredictable.
It does not usually lead to long-term complications, but it can be very bothersome and annoying.
Itchiness from MS is a neurological response, meaning that it does not come as a response to something on the skin itself. In MS, the immune system attacks the nerve tissues in the brain and spinal cord. This can cause changes in the nerves elsewhere in the body.
People describe MS itching as:
- sharp pins and needles
Scratching does not relieve the itch, and it may even make the sensation worse.
When does the itch occur?
MS itching can appear at any time, anywhere in the body. Sometimes the pain is symmetrical, meaning that people will feel it in the same area on both sides of the body. At other times, the pain will only appear in one area.
These itches may also have different triggers, including heat.
MS itching tends to be very intense but short-lived, lasting seconds to minutes. How often it comes back also varies between people.
Some people experience itching from MS regularly, while others rarely or never experience this symptom.
In mild cases of itching from MS, no direct treatment may be necessary. The symptom may be irritating but passes quickly.
In cases of persistent or recurring itches, there is a range of options available, including:
Applying a cold compress
In some cases, applying a cold compress to the area for 10–15 minutes can temporarily numb the skin and relieve the itching.
Only apply very cold objects, such as ice packs, to the skin after wrapping them in a towel or piece of cloth. Not wrapping the cold compress puts a person at risk of experiencing an ice burn or further skin irritation.
Checking for other signs
Check the area for signs of a rash, such as bumps, swelling, or redness that are not due to scratching. Report any of these signs to a doctor, as they could indicate an infection or a topical allergic reaction and require different treatment.
A person taking any medications should also check to see whether the drug can cause itching as a side effect. If so, they may want to discuss other options with their doctor.
Keeping the skin healthy
It is essential to take good care of the skin to avoid making the itching worse. If a person experiencing MS itching scratches their skin often, they may damage it, leaving it prone to dryness and other issues.
To keep the skin healthy, avoid taking extra hot showers and using soaps with harsh chemicals or fragrances. Drink plenty of water and apply moisturizers to keep the skin hydrated.
Some people with MS may find relief from some of their symptoms by practicing stress management techniques.
These include yoga, breathing techniques, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Mindfulness meditation or other guided meditations may also help some people reduce their symptoms.
Some people find that reflexology relieves nerve pain.
Reflexology involves applying pressure to specific areas on the feet, hands, and ears.
Some claim that putting pressure on these points can affect different systems in the body.
The American Academy of Neurology note that there is weak evidence that reflexology may help with irregular nerve pain.
Reflexology is a nonconventional treatment that doctors do not prescribe.
While there is little evidence for its effectiveness, some people find that it relaxes them and relieves nerve pain.
It is crucial to avoid scratching an MS itch. Scratching does not relieve these itches, and doing so may make them feel worse. Scratching too hard may also irritate the skin.
Wearing cotton gloves or socks over the hands at night may reduce the chances of scratching the skin while sleeping.
When home remedies do not work, a person can try medical treatments for MS itching, such as:
Doctors may prescribe anticonvulsants to help reduce MS itching.
Regular itching treatments, such as cortisone creams or sprays, will usually have no effect on MS itching.
However, there are some medications that may help.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society list several drugs that may help reduce MS itching:
- some antidepressants, such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors and amitriptyline (Elavil)
- anticonvulsants, such as phenytoin (Dilantin), carbamazepine (Tegretol), and gabapentin (Neurotonin)
- hydroxyzine (Atarax), which is an antihistamine
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation
A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit sends charges of electricity to the parts of the body that it is attached to.
People commonly use TENS units to relieve MS pain, but they may also help with an itch. The electrical impulse may confuse the nerves in the area, which relieves the itchiness.
Anyone with access to a TENS unit should talk to their doctor before using it to treat an itch.
While itching can be irritating, many people with MS can control mild itching with cold compresses and good skin health habits.
Avoiding triggers, changing habits in the home, and finding ways to relieve stress may help some people control their symptoms. For others, medications can help.
Anyone experiencing MS itching should discuss their options with a doctor, who may have additional tips.