MS “zingers” refer to neuropathic sensations, such as pain or pins and needles, caused by multiple sclerosis-related damage. Treatment can involve medical treatment and avoiding triggers.
Do you ever feel sharp, prickling, radiating pain that seems to come out of nowhere? Does the temperature outside, warm or cold, stir up electric shocks in your body that stop you in your tracks?
Sometimes described as a “zinger,” dysesthesia comes on suddenly. The painful sensations often affect the feet, hands, and legs, but they can occur in other areas of the body. For many people living with multiple sclerosis (MS), dealing with these zingers is an experience they are familiar with.
Dr. James Stark, an MS specialist and board certified neurologist at the International Multiple Sclerosis Management Practice, says the painful sensations happen to people living with MS because inflammation can cause damage to sensory nerves in the brain and spinal cord.
“Depending on the extent of the nerve damage, patients may report numbness or the lack of sensation, or they may perceive the sensory symptoms in different ways,” he explains.
This can include a feeling of pins and needles, crawling or itching sensations, a tightening of the skin especially around the chest or abdomen, or painful feelings like shooting pains, electric shocks, or burning sensations.
Dr. Evanthia Bernitsas, a neurologist at Wayne Health Neurology, says painful sensations or dysesthesia are very common in MS.
“We use this term [dysesthesia] to describe different pain syndromes, such as trigeminal neuralgia affecting the face, burning, tingling or vibratory-like sensations affecting mostly the upper and lower extremities or a squeezing sensation located below the breasts (MS hug),” she explains.
Ardra Shephard is one of millions of people living with MS who experience dysesthesia on a regular basis. She shares the reality of managing some of the more common MS symptoms on her blog Tripping on Air.
Shephard wrote a blog post describing her experience living with dysesthesia during the winter months. “If you have MS, the heat might mess you up, but feeling cold can be its own kind of torture,” she writes in the post. For Shephard, this common symptom of MS can feel like pins and needles, an electric shock, cold, or burning pain.
What do zingers feel like?
Community members on Healthline’s Bezzy Multiple Sclerosis Facebook page say they experience zingers or painful sensations in areas such as their neck, head, and legs. Some even say it feels like they’re being shocked by electricity.
Mac Compton compares the feeling to a tight rubber band being snapped hard. “They are intermittent and different from the stabbing pains that feel like an ice pick is being shoved into me,” Compton writes on the page. For Susan Cornett, the zingers are normally in her head. “I feel like I have a lightning bolt from one side to the middle… it’s unnerving.”
Medications and management strategies may help treat your dysesthesia.
Natural treatment and lifestyle changes
You may be able to manage dysesthesia with certain lifestyle changes, especially if your symptoms are mild and infrequent.
Avoiding known triggers
During the winter months, this may mean staying indoors when it’s cold outside. You may need to experiment with your temperature threshold to determine how cold it can be outside before you begin to experience painful sensations. When you do go out, you can layer clothing to better manage your temperature.
Using a warm compress
Applying a warm compress to your body can help warm you. Just make sure it’s not too hot since extreme temperatures (both too cold and too warm) can trigger painful sensations.
Covering the painful area
If you’re experiencing zingers in your face, for example, Bernitsas recommends covering your face with a scarf. This is considered protective and may help decrease the changes in these sensations.
Keeping the targeted areas warm
Since the feet and hands tend to be the common areas to experience this pain, consider keeping them warm during the winter months by wearing socks, slippers, or shoes while at home. You can cover your hands with gloves or mittens when outdoors.
Moving your body
Regular physical activity can help warm your body, keep the blood circulating, and support your overall health. If the sun is shining and the temperatures are warm enough, you can try exercising outdoors.
A 20-minute walk can make a difference. Not only will you get fresh air, but you’ll also enjoy a healthy dose of vitamin D.
Since avoiding triggers is not always an option, you might want to consider medication, especially if the symptoms occur frequently or are severe.
Neuropathic pain medications can include antiepileptic medications and antidepressants. Some of the drugs in these classes help alleviate nerve pain. Options may include:
MS zingers do not typically lead to adverse health outcomes. They may come on suddenly and cause pain or discomfort, but they are not life threatening. Often, they may stop on their own.
Consider discussing zingers and any other MS symptoms you experience with a doctor. They can help recommend strategies to manage your symptoms and medications to treat them if needed.
There are many different medications that can help manage MS. Which ones a doctor prescribes can depend on your type of MS, the symptoms you experience, and their severity.
You may also want to take note of potential triggers for your symptoms and bring the list with you to your appointment. This may help guide the discussion.