Early Signs of Multiple Sclerosis
MS can show itself in many ways, but early detection can help slow its progression.
A Close Look at MS Symptoms
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease with unpredictable symptoms that can vary in intensity. While some people only have fatigue and numbness, severe cases can cause paralysis, vision loss, and diminished brain function.
MS affects about 2.5 million people worldwide and affects women twice as often as men (National MS Society, 2012). Family history is also a major risk factor.
Follow through this slideshow to learn the early signs and symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis is a progressive autoimmune disorder where the protective coverings to nerve cells are damaged, causing diminished function in the brain and spinal column. In essence, the part of your body that keeps you healthy attacks parts important to your everyday function.
Despite being discovered in 1868, the cause of MS largely remains a mystery. Researchers know the nerve damage is caused by inflammation, but the cause of the inflammation is still unknown (NIH, 2011).
MS & Vision Problems
The most common early signs of multiple sclerosis are vision problems, clinically called “optic neuritis.” Inflammation affects the optic nerve and disrupts a person’s central vision. This can lead to blurred vision in one or both eyes, double vision, or loss of contrast or vivid colors.
The vision problems may not be noticed immediately because the degeneration of clear vision can be slow. Pain can also accompany the loss when a person looks up or to one side.
Tingling & Numbness
Because MS affects nerves in the brain and spinal column (the body’s message center), it can send conflicting signals around the body. Sometimes, no signals are sent, which results in the most common symptom, numbness. Common sites of numbness include the face, arms, legs, and fingers. Tingling sensations and numbness are the most common warning signs of MS.
Other common symptoms—pain and muscle spasms—are explained on the next slide.
Pain & Spasms
Chronic pain and involuntary muscle spasms are also common with multiple sclerosis. One study, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, showed that half of MS patients had either “clinically significant pain” or chronic pain (National MS Society, 2012).
Muscle stiffness or spasms (spasticity) are also common and involve feelings of stiff muscles or joints as well as uncontrollable, painful jerking movements of extremities. The legs are most often affected, but back pain is also common.
Fatigue & Weakness
Unexplained fatigue and weakness affect about 80 percent of people in the early stages of MS (National MS Society, 2012).
Chronic fatigue occurs when nerves deteriorate in the spinal column. Usually, the fatigue appears suddenly and lasts for weeks before improving. At first, the weakness is most noticeable in the legs.
Balance problems and dizziness are explained on the next slide.
Balance Problems & Dizziness
Dizziness and problems with coordination and balance are among the most common mobility problems for people with MS. The disease can prevent freedom of movement because people often feel lightheaded, dizzy, or as if their surroundings are spinning (vertigo). It often occurs when a person stands up.
Combined with other physical symptoms, balance issues decrease the mobility of someone with MS. Your doctor may refer to these as problems with your gait.
Bladder, Bowel & Sexual Dysfunction
A dysfunctional bladder is another symptom occurring in up to 80 percent of people with MS (National MS Society, 2012). This can include urinating frequently, strong urges to urinate, or inability to hold in urine, whether during the day or night. Fortunately, urinary-related symptoms are often manageable. Less often, people with MS also experience constipation, diarrhea, or loss of bowel control.
Sexual arousal can also be a problem for people with MS because it begins in the central nervous system—where MS attacks.
About half of the people with MS will develop some kind of hindrance to their cognitive function. This can include:
- memory problems
- shortened attention span
- language problems
- difficulty staying organized
Along with mental problems, depression and other emotional health problems are common. Learn more about them on the next slide.
Major depression is common among people with multiple sclerosis, according to some studies.
Along with depression, the stresses of MS can also cause irritability, mood swings, and a condition called pseudobulbar affect—bouts of uncontrollable crying and laughing. Coping with MS symptoms, along with relationship or family issues, can make depression and other emotional disorders even more challenging.
Not everyone with MS will have the same symptoms. During “attacks,” different symptoms can manifest themselves. Along with the symptoms mentioned on the previous slides, MS can also cause:
- hearing loss
- uncontrollable shaking
- breathing problems
- slurred speech
- trouble swallowing
Progression & Severity
Multiple sclerosis often astounds the medical community because of the variability in both its severity and manifestation. Attacks can last a few weeks and then disappear. However, relapses can be progressively worse and unpredictable and can have different symptoms.
MS can take a normally healthy person and change his or her life with severity uncommon to other disorders. However, early detection may help prevent MS from progressing quickly.
Is MS Hereditary?
MS isn’t necessarily hereditary. However, you have a higher chance of developing the disease if you have a close relative with MS, according to the National MS Society.
The general population only has a tenth of a percent chance of developing MS. But the Mayo Clinic reports that number jumps to one to three percent if you have a sibling or parent with MS.
Heredity isn’t the only factor in determining MS. An identical twin only has a 30 percent chance of developing MS if their twin has the disease. While genetics is certainly a risk factor, it’s not the only one.
Multiple Sclerosis Diagnosis
To diagnose MS, a doctor—most likely a neurologist—will perform several tests including:
- a neurological exam, which checks for reduced nerve function
- an eye exam, which checks for distortions in the inner eye and response times
- a spinal tap, in which a sample of spinal fluid is removed with a long needle and tested
With these, doctors look for damage to the central nervous system in two separate areas that occurred at least one month apart. These tests are also used to rule out other conditions.
Multiple sclerosis is challenging disorder, but researchers have discovered many treatments that can slow the progression of MS.
The best defense against multiple sclerosis is seeing your doctor immediately if you experience the first warning signs. This is especially important if someone in your immediate family has the disorder, as it is one of the key risk factors for multiple sclerosis.
Don't hesitate. It could make all the difference.