Sensory disturbances, including an itching sensation, can occur with multiple sclerosis. Sometimes these feelings can be early signs of MS.
Have you ever felt an itch that wouldn’t go away? The more you scratch, the more it itches. Although itching for no apparent reason may sound like a psychological phenomenon, it’s a reality for people with multiple sclerosis (MS).
It’s common for people with MS to experience strange sensations, also known as dysesthesias. These sensations can feel like pins and needles, burning, stabbing, or tearing. Itching (pruritus) is another potential symptom of MS.
These physical feelings are often early signs of MS.
MS is a disease of the central nervous system (CNS). It occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the body’s central nervous system. The cause of MS is unknown.
According to the National MS Society, it’s thought to be a reaction to environmental factors in people genetically susceptible to those factors.
In people with MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks myelin. Myelin is the protective coating that surrounds nerves. When this coating is attacked, nerves aren’t able to function as well, which disrupts signals between the brain and the rest of the body. Symptoms vary according to the location of the damage and can cause disability.
Sometimes demyelination (the process in which myelin is destroyed) can cause electrical impulses that create strange sensations. Paroxysmal symptoms (temporary neurological disturbances) are generally more fleeting than those of full-blown MS attacks.
Itching is just one potential sensory disturbance of MS. As with other symptoms of MS, itching may come on suddenly and occur in waves. It may last a few minutes or much longer.
Itching is one family of these disturbances. It’s different from allergic itching because MS-related itching does not occur with a rash or skin irritation.
There may be other causes of MS-related itching.
Some disease-modifying medications are administered by injection. These may cause temporary skin irritation and itching at the injection site.
An allergic reaction to medications like interferon beta-1a (Avonex) may also result in itching. An allergic skin reaction to certain drugs that are given intravenously (by IV) may cause the skin to itch.
In clinical trials, one of the common side effects of the oral medication dimethyl fumarate (Tecfidera) was the sensation of itching.
If the itching is mild, no treatment is necessary. Over-the-counter topical treatments are not useful for this type of itching.
If the itching is severe, prolonged, or begins to interfere with daily living, talk with a doctor.
Medications used to treat dysesthetic itching may include:
- the antihistamine hydroxyzine
According to the National MS Society, some medications are successful at treating this type of itching. They are:
- Anticonvulsants: carbamazepine (Tegretol), phenytoin (Dilantin), and gabapentin (Neurontin), and others
- Antidepressants: amitriptyline (Elavil) and others
- Antihistamine: hydroxyzine (Atarax)
Natural or complementary remedies
Practicing mindfulness can help reduce your stress. Stress
According to the American Academy of Neurology, there’s some weak evidence that reflexology may help to treat strange sensations, numbness, and tingling that you may have on the skin.
Magnetic therapy may help reduce fatigue associated with MS, notes the American Academy of Neurology. This therapy is generally well tolerated.
There aren’t any specific lifestyle changes that doctors typically recommend to treat itching in MS. However, there are some changes that help reduce the overall symptoms of MS. These include:
- eating a nutritious diet
- engaging in rehabilitation, including physical, occupational, and vocational therapy
- following an exercise plan recommended by a physical therapist
- getting a massage for relaxation
Managing your overall symptoms may help manage the causes of this type of itching.
MS-related itching is irritating and distracting. However, it usually doesn’t pose a long-term risk.
Itching creates a strong desire to scratch, but this can actually increase the feeling of itchiness. Vigorous scratching can break and damage the skin, which can lead to infection.
The good news is that, in most cases, no treatment is necessary. The symptoms will subside on their own.
However, if your itching also has an external rash or visible irritation, see your doctor. This may be a sign of an allergic reaction or infection and probably isn’t related to MS disease activity.
Itching can occur as a symptom of MS. With this type of sensation, medications for itchy skin likely will not help.
Doctors may recommend types of medication to relieve your symptoms, along with medication and lifestyle practices to manage MS.