MS-numbness

Dealing with MS Numbness

After my Optic Neuritis, the second obvious symptom of my MS was numbness. At first, I thought I was dealing with cold weather where my ear chilled and wouldn’t warm up. But when I got into a warm location for an extended period of time and my ear was still numb AND the numbness extended down my arm – something was wrong.

Of all the exacerbations it’s the most annoying but at this point the easiest to deal with for me. Mainly because I rarely encounter it, but also because I know exactly what needs to be done.

What is Numbness?

Numbness is rather self-explanatory: it’s when something feels numb or tingles. This numbness is common for those dealing with MS and is one of the earliest warning signs of Multiple Sclerosis.

Because of the nature of the numbness, it can impact daily life: without the proper environmental feedback, the numbness can make it difficult to walk, pick items up, and in some extreme cases, hard to swallow. That’s why it is important to take these numbness episodes seriously and see your doctor immediately for treatment.

Types of Numbness I’ve Experienced

I’ve already mentioned my ear, but I never really detailed the different types of numbness I’ve experienced throughout my illness. My ear was just my earlobe and the side of my face, but it eventually extended down the entire length of my right arm. Because I was abroad, this was problematic because I had no means to diagnose and treat it until I returned home. While I was in a country with excellent healthcare and experienced with MS, I was afraid I would waste everyone’s time when I was just dealing with some weird psychosomatic stress-induced episode.

Funny enough, that’s exactly what I was dealing with but more serious.

When I returned home I lost most use of my arm. I went to my General Practitioner who sent me to physical therapy. My PT suspected it was Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and so she worked on getting my nerves and muscles to stop spasming. Through her exercises both in the clinic and at home, I was able to loosen up my muscles to alleviate some of the numbness, but it basically went away once the exacerbation stopped.

Part of the problem with this particular numbness episode is that my arm locked up at the weirdest times. I had limited range of motion and I sometimes if I was reaching backward my arm got stuck. I physically could not get my arm to move back into position on its own. I needed someone to help me get it back in front of me if my left arm couldn’t reach. Driving a stick shift was difficult (it was the only car we had at the time), so I had to be driven everywhere for a month or so.

Not long after my arm started recovering did I experience my first symptoms of L’Hermittes Sign. It was at this moment I returned to my GP and shared with them my self-diagnosis of MS. The self-diagnosis was brushed aside, I think in part because of a lack of training, but I accepted it because I didn’t want to be right. Three months later after a hospital stint with massive amounts of steroids, I received my MS diagnosis. Most feelings of numbness and symptoms resolved at that point due to the steroids.

Another numbness episode occurred about 8 months later when I woke up unable to feel my right leg. Walking was particularly difficult because I did not know when I put my weight on my leg. I ended up with an interesting limp because I was so worried about my leg giving out. I borrowed a cane that Ash got as a present so I could walk faster.

Yes, there’s a photo:

I am positive I was making a face because some kids were looking at me weird. Credit: Michelle Melton

I definitely wasn’t as glamourous as Selma Blair at the Vanity Fair party, but it was the first time my mostly invisible illness was visible.

Because I got my diagnosis, I knew what caused the numbness this time. I was put on a high-dose steroid regimen for about a week and I regained use of my legs with no lasting damage. That was also the last time I experienced numbness as an extreme exacerbation. I still experience the L’Hemittes Sign from time-to-time when I am particularly stressed, but I have yet to experience limb loss to numbness again.

The Permanent Impact

While I have RRMS, which means that after each exacerbation I will most likely return to a state prior to the exacerbation physically speaking, there are still chances for me to have permanent damage from the exacerbation. I have mental fog and mild memory loss after one exacerbation, and after losing feeling in my right arm while I was abroad, my right-hand pointer and thumb are permanently numb.

This isn’t enough to impact my daily life so I cannot use these two fingers, but it is a present feeling that I notice from time-to-time. More than anything it’s annoying, but I know that I am very fortunate that this is the extent of my lasting symptoms. It makes my MS that much more real because I know that something isn’t right with me and that this is my normal.

Emotional Impact of MS Numbness

I can only speak for myself, but I know that the numbness is the scariest symptom of MS. Memory loss is awful, Optic Neuritis is annoying, fatigue is frustrating. But because of the actual physical impact of numbness: losing function of a limb which may mean you lose the ability to do a task, particularly favorite task is frightening. As mentioned above, the numbness can also mean difficulty doing basic functions for living like breathing and swallowing depending on what part of your body goes numb.

When I was walking around with the cane, finally able to show the world I wasn’t making it all up, I was a mixture of emotions. On one hand, I was able to show that there was something wrong with me. On the other hand, I was embarrassed and mortified by how visible I felt.

I was 29-years-old and using a cane. I had people giving me “the stare.” I hated how it felt and worked really hard to avoid needing the cane out in public during this exacerbation. Fortunately, once the steroids started working, my need for a cane went away and I gladly ditched it.

But the emotional lesson remained: I have MS and needing a walking device was a very real possibility in my future. At the time I wasn’t doing enough to take care of myself, I wasn’t even on disease-modifying drugs. Losing the function of my leg made me realize that I needed to do better if I wanted to increase my quality of life. After I finished up my steroids, I went back to my neurologist and began taking Copaxone to manage my MS.

I realized that I needed to begin the process of coping with my illness becoming more visible and learn to not be embarrassed by it, but use it as an opportunity to educate others. It would take another three years before I would start my blog, but at that moment I still hadn’t really dealt with the knowledge that I had MS.

The numbness, while more manageable for those of us with RRMS, is the true devastation of MS. It takes complete control over our bodies and makes us never forget that we are dealing with MS. Many other symptoms are easy to brush aside or ignore, but it is impossible to ignore the numbness. When your limbs are held hostage or basic functions are impaired, there’s no denying that you have MS.

For that, numbness is the symptom that scares me the most when I experience it as an exacerbation. It’s the one I think about when I am working really hard to manage my stress to help manage my exacerbations. It’s the one that I think about when I go back on MS medication. I hate the numbness and I hope to rarely experience it again in my lifetime.

Which symptom scares you the most with your MS? Do you dislike numbness as much as me? Leave your thoughts and experiences below.


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