Heidi Maloni PhD, ANP-BC, CNRN, MSCN National Clinical Nursing Director
VA Medical Center, Washington, DC
Nagging, burning, aching, sharp, stabbing or squeezing are words that are used to describe pain experienced by people with multiple sclerosis (MS). About two thirds of people with MS experience some level of pain at some time in their life. Pain should always be addressed as it impacts function and is often associated with depression, anxiety and fatigue.
Pain in MS is directly related to either an MS lesion or plaque in the nervous system (nerve pain), or the effects of disability. When MS makes moving about difficult, stress on muscles, bones and joints can cause pain (musculoskeletal pain). Pain in MS can be caused or worsened by infection, or pressure ulcers.
Nerve pain can be continuous and steady or sudden and irregular. Nerve pain is reported in varying degrees of severity. Fifty percent of those who report MS pain say their pain is constant and severe. Intermittent, sudden pain is described as shooting, stabbing, electric shock-like, or searing and is often caused by sensations that normally do not cause pain like the weight of bed covers, chewing, or a cold breeze. Other examples of intermittent pain include the feelings of tightness, cramping, clawing, and sudden spasms of a limb.
Tightness or band-like feelings, nagging, numbness, tingling in legs or arms, burning, aching, and throbbing pain is termed constant or steady nerve pain. Steady nerve pain is often worse at night or during changes in temperature, and can be worsened with exercise. The most common pain syndromes experienced by people with MS include: headache (seen more in MS than the general population), continuous burning pain in the legs and/or arms, back pain, and painful spasms.