If You Notice This On Your Skin, Get Checked for MS
Experts say this surprising symptom could tip you off to a serious health problem.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a serious autoimmune disease of the central nervous system that disrupts communication between the brain and body. Right now 2.3 million U.S. residents are living with MS, and many experience a debilitating range of symptoms that are all but invisible to onlookers. One such symptom—often among the first to be identified in the course of the disease—occurs in the skin of MS patients. Experts say that if you notice this sensation, you should talk to your doctor about being screened for multiple sclerosis now.
If you notice phantom itching on your skin, get checked for MS.
Dysesthetic itching is a form of chronic neuropathic itching with no immediate physical cause. One study in the journal Seminars in Cutaneous Medical Surgery (SCMS) describes the condition as a sort of "sensory hallucination"or "signaling abnormality," and explains that "the source of the problem is not where the symptoms are felt."
Along with neuropathic pain, dysesthetic itching is frequently identified in individuals with MS and certain other neurodegenerative disorders, thanks to abnormal nerve signals coming from the brain. "Like neuropathic pain, neuropathic itch is still poorly understood despite fundamental advances in understanding the mechanisms of itch in the normal nervous system," says the SCMS study. However, it is believed that up to 30 percent of MS patients experience either neuropathic pain or itching.
Neuropathic itching is linked to a range of other symptoms.
According to Medical News Today, neuropathic pain often occurs in tandem with neuropathic itching. This may present as burning, stabbing pain, irritation without physical contact, "an uncomfortable, hard to describe feeling similar to that of hitting the funny bone," the sensation of electric shock, or aching in the muscles.
However, there are other symptoms you may expect to experience if you are already experiencing dysesthetic itching or pain. Those may include the "MS hug," which presents as a feeling of pain, tingling, or tightness in the torso. Others describe feeling as though something is crawling under the skin or a whole-body sensation of pins and needles.
The itching may start early and get progressively worse.
Neuropathic itching can sometimes be among the very first symptoms of MS. "In some people, multiple sclerosis (MS) may cause itching early on, even before they seek out a diagnosis," according to Medical News Today. Unfortunately, because MS is, in many cases, a progressive condition, your itching or pain may also intensify over time if MS is the root cause.
Experts add that the duration of discomfort can vary from patient to patient. Neuropathic symptoms may occur acutely, meaning they appear and resolve suddenly, or chronically, meaning they occur over a longer period of time. Some people with more severe sensations are at risk of unintentional self-harm as they may scratch.
In rare cases, nerve damage can leave the skin devoid of pain or feeling, making those patients more likely to develop deeper, more serious skin lesions. "The most common location [for this injury] is on the face," note the SCMS study authors. They say this may be because the area is "unclothed and readily accessible to the fingers," not because the itching is necessarily any more intense there than in other body parts.
It can be difficult to treat, but speaking with your doctor is essential.
If you do experience neuropathic itch, you should speak with your doctor immediately to rule out other possibilities before being screened for MS. "A dermatologist should first examine the patient to exclude conventional causes of itch before requesting neurological consultation," advise the SCMS study authors.
If MS is determined to be a root cause, there are several treatment options available. "Treating neuropathic itch is difficult; antihistamines, corticosteroids, and most pain medications are largely ineffective," since the problem is neural, the SCMS researchers write. However, they note that local anesthetics that can inhibit neuronal excitability have been successful in reducing the symptom's severity, as have certain anti-seizure medications and select anti-depressants. Acupuncture, mindfulness, meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy may also be effective non-pharmacological treatments, adds the National MS Society.
You can also reduce your risk of scratching injury by implementing certain lifestyle interventions—for instance, keeping your nails short or using barriers to reduce scratching. Talk to your doctor now if you're experiencing unexplained itching in your skin.