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 strike the feet, hands, legs, and other areas of the body. For many people living with multiple sclerosis (MS), dealing with these zingers is something they know all too well.
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 Detroit Medical Center's Harper University Hospital, says painful sensations or dysesthesia are very common in MS. One 2016 review of studies noted that more than 60 percent of people with MS have experienced some type of pain.
“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 the 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 recently 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.
Community members on Healthline’s Living with 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.”
While not as intense or frequent as the painful sensations triggered from warmer weather, the zingers that happen in the winter can still pack a punch. Since temperature can affect how quickly nerves conduct electricity, spending several months in a cold environment can trigger dysesthesia.
Bernitsas explains that weather or changes in barometric pressure can definitely change the severity of these sensations. For example, she says that exposure to cold weather worsens trigeminal neuralgia. Which means washing your face with cold water can precipitate an attack.
Stark says one of the more common zingers people with MS experience in colder temperatures is increased muscle stiffness, cramping, and tightness.
Avoid known triggers
During the winter months, this means 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 venture out, make sure to layer clothing.
Talk to your doctor about medication
Since avoiding triggers is not always an option, you might want to consider medication, especially if the symptoms occur frequently. Stark says there are a number of neuropathic pain medications available. These tend to come from two categories of drugs: antiepileptic medications and antidepressants. It’s not that pain symptoms are resulting from depression or seizures. Some of the drugs in these classes just also help to alleviate nerve pain.
Try a warm compress
Applying a warm compress to your body can help heat you up. Just make sure it’s not too hot since extreme temperatures (both too cold and too warm) can trigger painful sensations.
Cover 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 to decrease the changes of these sensations.
Keep the targeted areas warm
Since the feet and hands tend to be the most common areas to experience this pain, keep them warm during the winter months. Wear socks, slippers, or shoes while at home. Cover your hands with gloves or mittens when venturing outdoors.
Move your body
Physical activity can help warm your body and keep the blood circulating. If the sun is shining and the temperatures are warm enough, exercise outdoors.
Remember, it doesn’t take hours of exercise to get results. Even 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.
Sara Lindberg, BS, MEd, is a freelance health and fitness writer. She holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s degree in counseling. She’s spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind-body connection, with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impact our physical fitness and health.