Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune condition that affects your central nervous system (CNS). With MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks myelin, which is the protective coating that lines the nerves.
MS can come with a variety of symptoms — one of which is numbness and tingling in various parts of your body. However, just because you’re experiencing this sensation doesn’t mean you have MS. It can be caused by other things as well.
Below, we’ll break down why numbness and tingling happen with MS, what it can feel like, and other medical conditions that can cause this sensation to occur.
In MS, cells of the immune system attack a substance called myelin. Myelin lines the nerves of your CNS, which includes your brain and spinal cord.
These attacks by the immune system cause damage to myelin as well as the nerves underneath. This can cause nerve signaling to become slower or disrupted.
Nerve signaling is how your brain sends and receives information from other parts of your body. When nerve pathways are damaged, the brain may not receive sensory information normally.
When this happens, a variety of sensory symptoms can occur. It’s estimated that about
Numbness and tingling are often reported as an early symptom of MS. In some cases, it may be the first symptom that you notice. However, it can also occur at any stage of MS.
Numbness is a loss or dulling of sensation. This means that you may be unable to feel light touches, pain, or changes in temperature.
Numbness can cause difficulty with everyday activities. For example, someone with numb fingers may have trouble picking up objects or writing. Or, an individual with a numb leg can have difficulty walking.
It’s common for numbness to happen along with a tingling sensation. You may have felt this sensation if you’ve ever had an arm or a leg “fall asleep” by being placed in a certain position for too long.
Tingling may also feel like:
- pins and needles
- skin crawling
The intensity of these sensations can greatly vary between individuals. Some may experience only mild numbness or tingling. Conversely, others may have numbness and tingling that significantly impacts their ability to perform daily activities.
Where does it happen?
Common places for numbness and tingling with MS include:
These sensations can affect one or both sides of your body. In some cases, they may only affect a certain patch of skin and not the entire body part.
When numbness occurs across the body or around a limb, it can feel like a squeezing sensation. You may see this referred to as an “MS hug.”
When does it happen?
It can often feel like numbness and tingling come on spontaneously. This means that it has no apparent trigger.
As mentioned earlier, altered sensations like numbness and tingling are often an early sign of MS. However, these sensations can come or go at any point.
It’s possible that numbness and tingling can happen during an MS relapse. In fact, a 2017 study of 5,311 people with MS found that 70 percent reported experiencing numbness and tingling during a relapse.
Numbness and tingling aren’t the only early MS symptoms that you may experience. Others include:
Numbness and tingling can have other causes besides MS. Sometimes, if you’ve stayed in certain postures for too long, your limb will become numb, such as when your arm or leg falls asleep. But there are other more serious causes as well.
Medical conditions besides MS that can cause numbness and tingling include:
- stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA)
- autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
- Raynaud’s phenomenon
- injuries affecting the nervous system
- tumors affecting the brain or spinal cord
- anxiety disorders
- heavy alcohol use
- exposure to toxic substances like heavy metals or carbon monoxide
Tingling can also be caused by infections, such as:
- Lyme disease
The nerve can also become compressed or entrapped due to conditions like:
- carpal tunnel syndrome
Also, deficiencies of the following vitamins may cause tingling:
Certain medications or therapies can sometimes cause sensory side effects, including:
Make an appointment with a medical professional for numbness or tingling that:
- develops after an injury
- occurs without an obvious cause and is persistent or continues to come back
- happens along with other early symptoms of MS
How is MS treated?
MS treatment depends on your symptoms and disease course. It can include things like:
- Disease-modifying therapies. These medications can be injected or taken as a pill. They’re used to help slow the progression of MS. The specific type of medication used will depend on the type of MS you have.
- Corticosteroids. Corticosteroids can be used to reduce inflammation associated with an MS relapse. In some cases, they may be used to help manage symptoms like numbness and tingling.
- Plasma exchange. Plasma exchange is a potential treatment for MS relapses in people that haven’t responded well to corticosteroid treatment.
- Treatment of individual symptoms. Your doctor will also take steps to treat individual MS symptoms. Potential treatment options include:
- prescription medications to treat things like numbness and tingling, pain, and muscle spasms
- physical or occupational therapy to help with mobility, balance, or performing daily tasks
- assistive devices like a cane or walker to help with mobility
- lifestyle changes such as increasing physical activity and trying relaxation techniques
- psychotherapy to help cope with MS symptoms
- Complementary therapies: Some complementary therapies, such as reflexology, vitamin D supplementation, and magnet therapy, may be helpful for MS. However, more research is needed.
Is there anything I can do at home?
If you’re experiencing numbness and tingling, the following at-home treatments can help ease or prevent your symptoms:
- Be active. Moving the affected area may help reduce numbness and tingling in some cases. Getting regular exercise may also help prevent symptoms from recurring.
- Eat a healthy diet. A healthy, well-balanced diet is good for your overall health. It can also help reduce likelihood of vitamin deficiencies, which can lead to numbness and tingling.
- Limit alcohol intake. Heavy alcohol use can cause or contribute to numbness and tingling. If you drink alcohol, try reducing the amount to see if that helps with your symptoms.
- Relax. Stress may make your symptoms worse, so look for ways to relax, such as yoga or meditation.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) medications. It’s possible that numbness and tingling may happen with pain. Taking OTC medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) may alleviate these symptoms.
Remember that these home remedies aren’t a substitute for seeing a medical professional. If you have symptoms that are constant, recurrent, or concerning, seek medical attention.
Once you’ve made an appointment with a doctor for numbness and tingling, prepare for your visit by:
- keeping track of your symptoms and writing down what they feel like, the specific area of your body where they happen, and when they happen
- writing down any medications, vitamins, or herbal supplements you’re taking
- listing any personal or family history of health conditions
- preparing questions for the doctor
To diagnose the cause of your symptoms, a doctor will first perform a physical examination and review your medical history. They’ll then do a neurological examination to evaluate the following:
- reflexes and coordination
- senses like vision and touch
They may then order additional tests, which can include:
- blood tests to check for underlying health conditions like diabetes, thyroid disease, or vitamin deficiencies
- imaging, such as MRI or CT scans, to create images of your brain or spinal cord
- a lumbar puncture to look for markers associated with MS or other neurological conditions
- nerve conduction studies to assess how quickly electrical impulses travel through your nerves
The specific treatment for numbness and tingling depends on what’s causing it. After making a diagnosis, your doctor develop a treatment plan appropriate for your condition.
Numbness and tingling is common in MS. It’s often one of the earliest reported symptoms, but it can happen at any point over the course of condition.
These sensations most often happen in the limbs, face, or torso. They can range in intensity from mild to severe. Other early symptoms of MS can include — but aren’t limited to — fatigue, pain, and muscle stiffness.
Many other health conditions can cause numbness and tingling, some of which can be serious. Talk with a doctor if you have numbness and tingling that’s constant, persistent, or occurs with other concerning symptoms.