Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects the nerves and can cause dysesthesia, or abnormal sensations such as burning, numbness, and itching. Itching with MS may come and go or move around the body.
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 irritant. But some prescription medications and lifestyle strategies may help a person manage MS itching.
This article discusses MS-related itching and what to do to find relief.
When living with MS, a person may experience a feeling of pins and needles all over their body along with itchiness.
MS itching can range from a minor bother to a stinging itch or a feeling of 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 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, which means that it is not 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
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 appear in only one area.
These itches may have different triggers, such as heat.
MS itching tends to be very intense but short-lived, lasting seconds to minutes. Its frequency also varies from person to person.
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 pass quickly.
For persistent or recurring itches, a range of options is available, including:
Applying a cold compress
In some cases, applying a warm or cool compress for 10–15 minutes may help temporarily relieve the itching.
A person should wrap a very cold object, such as an ice pack, in a towel or piece of cloth before applying it to the skin. 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 that do not stem from MS, such as bumps, swelling, or redness.
Report any of these to a doctor, as they could indicate an infection or a topical allergic reaction and require different treatments.
A person who is 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 the use of 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 allergies, can also help.
Mindfulness and stress management
Mindfulness meditation or other guided meditations may also help some people reduce their symptoms.
The National MS Society suggests that these techniques may help.
Reflexology involves applying pressure to specific areas on the feet, hands, and ears. Some people claim that putting pressure on these points can affect different systems in the body.
The American Academy of Neurology notes that there is weak evidence that reflexology may help with irregular nerve pain.
Reflexology is an unconventional 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.
Some surveys have found that 20–25% of people with MS have tried acupuncture to help manage various symptoms.
While there is not enough research to show that acupuncture has 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 by using air conditioning to keep cool when possible or wrapping up to stay warm in cold weather.
When home remedies do not work, a person can try medical treatments for MS itching, such as:
Typical itching treatments, such as cortisone creams or sprays, will usually have no effect on MS itching.
However, some medications may help.
The National MS Society lists 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
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
By attaching a 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 and itching from MS. It may also help relieve itching.
Anyone with access to a TENS unit should talk with their doctor before using it to treat an itch.
What is neurological itching?
Neurological itching, also known as neuropathic itch, is an itch caused by a problem in the neurons of the brain. This means the itchy feeling is caused by a neurological condition, such as MS, and occurs independently of any external cause.
Does MS cause itchy hands and feet?
MS can cause itchiness anywhere in a person’s body, including the hands and feet.
Do antihistamines help with MS itch?
A doctor will frequently prescribe hydroxyzine (Atarax), which is an antihistamine, to treat MS-related itch.
How do you calm neuropathic itching?
The treatment depends on the cause. In the case of MS, this may involve a combination of home remedies, medications, and, in some cases, electrical stimulation.
While itching can be irritating, many people with MS can manage 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 manage this symptom. For others, medications can help.
Anyone experiencing MS itching should discuss their options with a doctor, who may have additional tips.