Unusual Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

MRI scans of a brain showing multiple sclerosis.
MRI scans of a brain showing multiple sclerosis. maciu17/Getty Images

If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), you've likely experienced many common MS symptoms like numbness and tingling, fatigue, depression, and muscle spasms. What you may not be familiar with are the more unusual symptoms of MS, like sudden and persistent itching or breathing problems. In fact, you may have experienced some of these "unusual" symptoms but never connected them to your MS experience.

Here's a list of unusual or less common symptoms of MS. Has any of them ever happened to you?

Strange Sensations

Besides numbness and tingling, less common sensations like itching or burning may occur in MS.

Itching

Itching in MS occurs on one part of the body or face and is not associated with a rash or allergic reaction. For some people, the itching can be mild, whereas, for others, it can be so severe that it interferes with everyday activities like going to work. 

Medications used to treat itching in MS include the antiseizure medication Neurontin (gabapentin) and the atypical antidepressant Elavil (amitriptyline).

Burning

Burning pain may affect any part of the body, although the feet tend to be a particularly common culprit. As with other abnormal sensation in MS, there is no rash or "heat" associated with the burning—instead, people just note that a certain part of their body "burns" or is "on fire."

To combat severe burning sensations, a person may try to change the way their brain perceives pain from one of "burning" to one of "pressure" or "cold." For example, if a person's foot is "burning," he or she could wear a tight sock on that foot to make the brain focus on the pressure and not the discomfort. Distraction, mindfulness meditation, and seeing a therapist who specializes in treating pain-related conditions can also be helpful. If the burning sensation is debilitating, a medication like Neurontin (gabapentin) may be prescribed by your doctor.

Seizures

According to the National MS Society, seizures, which result from abnormal electrical discharges in the brain, occur in about two to five percent of people with MS.

About 60 percent of seizures in people with MS are primary or secondary generalized seizures, while the remaining are partial. Interestingly, simple partial seizures are more common in people with MS than complex partial, which is the opposite for the general population.

The upside is that seizures connected with MS are typically short-lived and may not require therapy; although, if they do, the seizures can typically be treated effectively with an anti-seizure medication.

Swallowing Problems

Swallowing problems, called dysphagia, may occur in MS, at any stage, although it's more common in people with advanced disease.  Dysphagia results from damage to the nerve fibers that control the muscles involved in swallowing. This may cause a person to choke or cough when drinking or eating. A major, potentially life-threatening, complication of dysphagia is aspiration pneumonia, which is when a person develops a lung infection, as a result of inhaled food particles. Malnutrition and dehydration are two other complications of dysphagia.

Breathing Muscle Weakness

Muscle weakness is common in MS. While we tend to think more about muscle weakness in the arms and legs, it can occur with breathing muscles, as well. When the muscles you use to breathe begin to weaken, it becomes more difficult to inhale and exhale. Breathing muscle weakness may exacerbate MS fatigue and also make it more difficult to carry on long conversations. Physical and respiratory therapy can help strengthen your breathing muscles.

Hearing Problems

Hearing problems in MS are not common, but if they do occur, they are believed to be caused by myelin sheath damage and loss within the auditory nerve pathways in the brain. Due to the rarity of MS as the cause of hearing difficulties or loss in people, it's important to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT) doctor if you are having problems hearing—there are numerous non-MS related problems that need to be investigated first.

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that in addition to a vast range of potential MS symptoms, some more common than others, there is also a variety of triggers reported by people with MS, meaning factors that worsen or initiate MS symptoms. While stress, heat, and infection are common triggers, other less commonly reported ones include airline travel, humidity, and eating certain foods.

In the end, listen to your own body—if something bothers your MS symptoms, avoid it or adjust as best as you can. Likewise, if an unusual symptom pops up, don't ignore it. Instead, remain proactive and get it checked out by your doctor.

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Article Sources
  • National MS Society. (n.d.). MS Symptoms. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms
  • Koch M, Uyttenboogaart M, Polman S, De Keyser J. Seizures in multiple sclerosis. Epilepsia. 2008 Jun;49(6):948053.