All you need to know about dysesthesia
Dysesthesia comes from two ancient Greek words that mean "abnormal sensation."
People with dysesthesia may feel as if their skin is itching or burning.
Dysesthesia results from nerve damage. It happens when damage to the nerves causes their behavior to become unpredictable, which leads to inappropriate or incorrect signaling.
These confused messages go to the brain, which is often unable to interpret them. Consequently, the brain chooses to respond to a sensation or combination of sensations that it knows.
In the case of dysesthesia, impaired nerve firing can cause the brain to stimulate abnormal, uncomfortable sensations, ranging from a mild tingling sensation to sharp, stabbing pain.
Dysesthesia can be painful, but it is not a sign of tissue damage. The body tissues can remain fully functional and healthy, although prolonged misuse or lack of use due to pain and discomfort may leave them damaged.
The symptoms of dysesthesia vary between individuals, but they tend to affect the skin, scalp, face, mouth, torso, arms, and legs.
The most likely symptoms include:
- an itching, burning sensation that may resemble something crawling under or on the skin
- a restrictive feeling, especially around the trunk or torso, sometimes called an "MS hug"
- an unexplained painful sensation that often radiates to other parts of the body
- feelings of tingling or "pins and needles"
- the sensation of being on fire
- an uncomfortable, hard to describe feeling similar to that of hitting the funny bone
- the sensation of electric shocks
- sharp, stabbing pains
- pain or irritation, even from a light touch or no contact
- an aching feeling, similar to that of sore muscles
- hair loss, if it affects the scalp
Depending on the underlying cause, the sensations may be either acute — happening suddenly and resolving after a while — or chronic, which means that they persist.
Many cases of dysesthesia occur due to progressive conditions, so they often become worse over time.
Different types of dysesthesia affect different parts of the body, but they all result in skin discomfort without damage to the skin.
Most people with this type of dysesthesia are likely to experience an intensely painful burning sensation under or on the skin of the scalp. This sensation can lead to scratching, which cannot provide relief, and hair loss.
Sometimes, scalp dysesthesia can result from a condition that affects the bones of the spine in the neck.
Most people with this type of dysesthesia have sensitive skin that does not respond in the usual way to outside stimuli or touch. In some cases, loose-fitting clothes or a passing breeze may trigger sensations of pain, burning, or irritation.
Someone with this type of dysesthesia will feel as though their bite is uncomfortable without any apparent reason.
Occlusal dysesthesia is an uncommon side effect or complication of dental procedures.
Oral dysesthesia involves an unexplained sensation of pain or burning in the mouth or the oral structures, which include the jaw, tongue, and gums. Some doctors call it burning mouth syndrome.
Doctors do not know exactly why this sensation develops. It may be a symptom of many different conditions affecting the mouth or body. Sometimes, burning mouth syndrome can stem from a psychological disorder.
A person may also experience changes in their sense of taste or their response to temperature, and they may have difficulty speaking and eating.
Link with MS
Dysesthesia is a symptom of nerve-damaging conditions, in particular, those that target the central nervous system or the spinal cord and brain, such as MS. Dyesthesia is a very common symptom of MS.
MS is an autoimmune condition in which the body damages or destroys myelin, the layer of protective fatty tissue that allows electrical impulses to pass through.
When myelin damage is minimal, it may only slightly or temporarily impair nerve signaling. However, extensive myelin damage can shut down nerve communication altogether, which usually causes intense, long-term pain.
Dysesthesia can occur with shingles.
Anything that involves damage to the nerves or nervous system can cause dysesthesia.
Other conditions that it can happen with include:
- Lyme disease
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- withdrawal from or overuse of drugs
- alcohol use disorder
- certain vitamin deficiencies
- nerve injuries
If the person does not have a long-term condition, such as MS, then dysesthesia will usually resolve after a few months. Treatment of the underlying condition will often lessen the dysesthesia.
Symptoms can improve with medications that change how the central nervous system processes pain.
Common pharmaceutical or surgical treatment options include:
- antiseizure drugs
- certain cannabinoids
- some benzodiazepines
- oral pain relievers or anti-inflammatories
- hydrocortisone creams or ointments
- surgical cutting of the damaged nerves, in severe cases
A cool compress may help relieve discomfort.
Some natural treatment options might help relieve chronic pain, including nerve pain such as dysesthesia.
Possible options include:
- applying warm or cool compresses to the affected area
- wearing pressurized socks, stockings, pants, or gloves when possible
- getting enough sleep and avoiding stress, as far as possible
- staying hydrated
- using skin-calming lotions, creams, and washes that contain calamine or aloe
- using over-the-counter pain relievers or topical creams
- practicing mindfulness or meditation
- doing exercises that involve gentle stretching
- finding and avoiding triggers, where possible
- avoiding hot environments and not overheating during exercise
- choosing loose-fitting, cool, preferably cotton clothing and bedding
- taking lukewarm baths with Epsom salts and colloidal oats before bedtime
- trying alternative therapies, such as massage, chiropractic, hypnosis, acupuncture or acupressure, and hydrotherapy
- using biofeedback therapy, which involves using electrical sensors to determine which actions or reactions lead to symptoms and then trying to find ways to change or manage them
- joining a support group or getting counseling
- quitting or avoiding smoking
- doing relaxation exercises
The authors of a 2018 review suggested that some herbs may have the potential to treat nerve pain, but more research is necessary to confirm this.
There is not enough evidence to support all of the methods above, but an individual can try various practices to find out what works for them.
Some home remedies may also help reduce the intensity or frequency of symptoms.
Is it worth trying acupuncture for nerve pain with MS?
Some studies have shown that acupuncture may help reduce pain in MS, but more research is necessary. Acupuncture is a safe procedure that does not have any serious side effects as long as a well-trained, reputable practitioner performs it. If a person uses acupuncture, it should be in addition to a good pain management program that includes medication and physical therapy.Nancy Hammond, MD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.