Why MS Can Mess with Your Senses

The sight of the sun setting. The smell of freshly brewed coffee. The taste of home-cooked food. The sound of laughter. The touch of a loved one’s hand. Our five senses help us to appreciate and enjoy the world around us. Which makes it all the more frustrating when MS takes them over! While the effect of the disease on mobility has been widely documented, the impact of MS on the senses may have been underestimated. In fact, depending on where damage to the brain occurs, all five senses can be affected – some more commonly than others. Here’s the lowdown:


It can be scary when it happens, but more than half of people with MS experience vision problems at some point. In fact, it’s the first sign of the disease in around 20% of people . Vision loss, blurring and even colour blindness can all be brought on by inflammation of the optic nerve – a condition known as optic neuritis. Thankfully, it’s rare for both eyes to be affected at once and symptoms are usually temporary, clearing up in a matter of weeks . If your symptoms are particularly severe, however, you may be prescribed medication to help your body deal with them. Either way it’s vital that you see an eye specialist without delay.


If you’re experiencing problems with your ears, it’s best not to dismiss it as MS. Hearing can be affected by the disease although this is pretty rare, with just 6% of people experiencing issues . Problems can arise from inflammation and/or scarring around the auditory nerve as it enters the brainstem . However, because the problem is so uncommon, it’s important that you get any hearing issues checked by your doctor to rule out other more likely causes.


If your taste buds don’t seem as sensitive as they used to be, you’re probably not imagining it. Evidence suggests that MS affects your sense of taste a great deal more than experts realized . In the past, studies have estimated this symptom to occur in just 5% of patients, when in fact it appears to be much higher. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Center, for example, found as many as 32% of people with MS scored low in taste tests when it came to detecting salty foods, with 24.6% struggling to detect sweet foods . What’s more, the greater the number and size of lesions spotted in the large sectors of the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes on an MRI scan, the worse a person’s taste perception appeared to be .

If you have noticed a change or you’ve simply lost your appetite, speak to your doctor.


While, admittedly there are some smells most of us would be happier not detecting – the gym changing room, for instance, ugh – loss of smell can be a big problem for some people with MS. In fact, it’s a fairly common symptom, with up to 45% of people noticing changes . One recent study found that reduced sense of smell in MS appears to be linked to a decrease in the volume of the olfactory bulb (the region of the brain responsible for processing smell) and surrounding gray matte r. What’s more, it also appeared to correlate with an increased score on the expanded disability scale. The researchers concluded that in such patients, changes in sense of smell could provide valuable information about the progression of the disease – making it all the more important to discuss these changes with your doctor.


The sensory nerve fibers that provide the sense of touch in your body parts, such as fingers, and also your ability to feel cold or heat, can become damaged through MS, giving rise to infuriating sensations like numbness, tingling, burning and itching . Symptoms can be temporary (striking during relapses) or more progressive, and can occur anywhere on the body. Sensory symptoms tend to be exacerbated by heat or fatigue, so keeping cool and not overexerting yourself can help to minimize them .

So there we have it. The symptoms of MS can be as vague and bizarre as they are irritating – but don’t let that stop you reporting them to your doctor. Not only do sensory symptoms provide important information about your condition, a tweak of your treatment regime could be all it takes to sort them out. Leaving you to get on with enjoying the sights, sounds and smells around you. Just maybe not the gym changing rooms.

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