Beginner's Guide to Multiple Sclerosis

by Lisa Emrich Patient Advocate

You've developed a strange little numbness and tingling in the fingers of your left hand. It doesn't really hurt, but it's just.... odd. Maybe the tingling goes away on its own and you don't think about it again. Or maybe it sticks around and even starts to slowly grow so that now your forearm is numb, too.

Do you call the doctor? For some tingling fingers....

There are many possible causes of numb fingers. Let's assume that you didn't just break your fingers; because if you had, you'd be in the emergency room seeking medical attention.

The numbness could be caused by (but less frequently) frostbite, leprosy, or rare genetic disorders, such as Haim-Munk syndrome or hereditary neuropathy with liability to pressure palsies.

Do you have diabetes? Pernicious anemia? Hypothyroidism? Peripheral vascular disease? Lupus? Raynaud's syndrome? Guillaine-Barre syndrome? Cervical spondylosis (aka osteoarthritis)? Carpal tunnel syndrome? Or a pinched nerve?

Maybe you do have a demyelinating disease such as multiple sclerosis (MS) which affects the central nervous system or chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) which affects the peripheral nervous system.

Mention the numbness to your primary care physician (PCP) which is exactly what I did after fingers on my left hand became numb and tingly. I suspected a pinched nerve in my neck due to a swimming incident a few weeks prior.

My PCP conducted a physical exam, checking joints from my cervical spine (neck) down to my fingertips, muscle tone and tendon reflexes, as well as altered sensations (pain, touch, temperature and vibration).

Then she ordered a battery of blood tests:

  • Complete blood count (CBC) and chemistry panel

  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR or Sed rate) which measures inflammation in the body

  • Blood glucose levels to detect diabetes

  • Thyroid panel (including TSH) to diagnose hypothyroidism

  • Rheumatoid factor (RF), Antinuclear antibodies (ANA) to detect possible autoimmune disease

  • Vitamin B12 to detect deficiency and possible pernicious anemia

When the results of these tests came back within normal ranges, we took a 'wait-and-see' approach. If I noted any increased symptoms or changes in symptoms, I was to consult with her again.

A month later, my Sweetie was scratching my back which felt really good, except one strange thing - the skin over my left shoulder blade was numb. The right side felt normal, but the left side was dull. I hadn't even noticed the gradual spread of numbness. It was time to call the doctor again.

Note: The first steps in finding a diagnosis include consultation with your PCP (who knows you well and who you trust), a physical exam including neurological assessment, and a battery of blood tests to look for other causes of your symptoms.

Lisa Emrich
Meet Our Writer
Lisa Emrich

Living with multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid Arthritis, Lisa Emrich is an award-winning, passionate patient advocate, health writer, classical musician, and backroad cyclist. Her stories inspire others to live better and stay active. Lisa is author of the blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers. Lisa frequently works with organizations in support of better policies, patient-centered research, and research funding. Lisa serves on HealthCentral’s Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the MSHealthCentral Facebook page.