Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects the nerves and can cause dysesthesia, or abnormal sensations such as burning, numbness, or itching. Itching with MS may come and go or move around the body.
In some people, multiple sclerosis (MS) may cause itching early on, even before they seek out a diagnosis. Pruritus is the medical 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.
The itching sensation that occurs with MS 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 disruptive and affect a person’s quality of life.
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.
Alongside itching, a person may experience sensations of:
- burning and heat
- tearing pains
Scratching does not relieve the itch, and it may even make the sensation worse.
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 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 for 10–15 minutes may 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 a 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 do not stem from MS.
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
Taking good care of the skin can help prevent additional problems that can make itching worse. The overuse of some cosmetics can lead to dryness and sensitivity reactions in some people.
To keep the skin healthy, avoid very hot showers and soaps and other products that contain harsh chemicals or fragrances.
Drink plenty of water and apply moisturizers to keep the skin hydrated. A pharmacist can recommend moisturizers that are less likely to dry or irritate the skin.
Treating unrelated problems that increase the risk of itching, such as eczema or an allergy, can also help.
Mindfulness and stress management
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.
The National MS Society suggest that mindfulness and meditation may help.
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.
The National MS Society also note that acupuncture may help.
Some statistics suggest that around 20% of people with MS in the United States have tried acupuncture to help manage various symptoms.
While there is not enough research evidence to show that it has positive benefits for MS, it is likely to be safe, as long as the practitioner is trained and qualified and uses sterile, single-use needles.
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.
If specific triggers appear to make itching and other neurological sensations worse, it may help to avoid those triggers, such as using air conditioning where possible to keep cool or wrapping up warm in cold weather.
When home remedies do not work, a person can try medical treatments for MS itching, such as:
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 MS Society list several drugs that may help reduce MS itching:
- some antidepressants, such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and amitriptyline (Elavil)
- anticonvulsants, such as phenytoin (Dilantin), carbamazepine (Tegretol), and gabapentin (Neurotonin)
- hydroxyzine (Atarax), which is an antihistamine
Learn more about medical treatments for MS.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation
By attaching a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit to parts of the body, a person can send charges of electricity to those parts. The electrical impulse confuses the nerves in an area, bringing relief.
A TENS unit may help relieve neuropathic pain from MS. It may also help relieve itching.
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.