Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune condition affecting the brain and spinal cord of the central nervous system. The disease affects women disproportionately. According to the Mayo Clinic, women have twice the chance that men do to develop MS—and the Multiple Sclerosis Association (MSAA) of America suggests that women may be up to three times as likely to get MS.
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The symptoms that strike women with MS are in general the same symptoms that can strike men. Symptoms vary in both men and women, depending on the location and severity of nerve damage caused by inflammation. In MS, the body’s immune cells attack the nervous system, which can occur in the brain, spinal cord, or optic nerve. Because of this, MS patients can experience muscle-related symptoms in different parts of the body, including:
Women with MS may experience a vision loss, either partial or complete. This often occurs in one eye, and pain may occur when moving your eyes. Additional eye-related symptoms include double vision or blurred vision, involuntary eye movements, and more generalized eye discomfort and visual difficulties. All of these eye symptoms are due to MS lesions in the part of the brain that’s responsible for controlling and coordinating vision.
Both bladder dysfunction and bowel symptoms occur frequently in MS. Bladder problems are caused by dysfunction in the pathways of the nervous system that control your bladder muscles as well as the sphincters of the urinary tract. According to MSAA, a large percentage of those with MS—both women and men—suffer from bowel irregularities during the course of their disease.
Possible bladder and bowel symptoms include:
Feelings of numbness, tingling, and pain are common for many MS sufferers, including women. This is often experienced across the body or in specific limbs. You might notice numbness as “pins and needles” or a burning sensation. According to MSAA, more than half of all people with MS will have to deal with some form of pain during their illness.
While some types of pain are related directly to MS itself, other forms of pain may be byproducts of how MS affects the body. For example, imbalances caused by walking difficulties may lead to pain from stress on your joints.
Both women and men with MS may experience trouble speaking or swallowing. Common speech problems include slurred or poorly articulated speech, as well as a loss of volume control or a slowed-down rate of speaking. Some people also notice changes in their speech quality, such as a harsh-sounding voice or a breathless quality.
MS lesions can also influence swallowing, which can lead to difficulties chewing and moving the food to the back of your mouth, as well as your body’s ability to move food through the esophagus and into your stomach.
A variety of other brain and nerve symptoms may result from MS lesions in the brain areas, and these can affect people of both genders. Some MS sufferers may notice a decreased attention span, memory loss, or poor judgment. It’s also common to have trouble reasoning or problem solving. Other symptoms may include:
Men and women both can experience sexual dysfunction with MS, including:
- decreased sex drive
- reduced genital sensation
- fewer and less intense orgasms
Additionally, women may notice reduced vaginal lubrication or pain during intercourse. Some good news for women with MS: according to the MSAA, MS has no effect on fertility. In fact, MS symptoms actually stabilize or improve during pregnancy for most women. However, relapse is common following delivery.
Though women are at greater risk for developing MS than men, women experience MS symptoms at the same severity as men do. Although there is currently no cure for MS, many MS patients can still have a productive and full life.
As for anyone with MS or not, lifestyle choices can make a difference in quality of life. Eating a proper diet, exercising, and avoiding smoking and excessive drinking can help, along with long-term drug treatments for MS. Your doctor can help you make the changes and find the treatments that are right for you.