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Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Symptoms

Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms

The symptoms of MS are different in each person. They may be mild, or they may be debilitating. Symptoms may be constant, or they may come and go. There are four typical patterns of progression of the disease.

Patterns of Progression

The progression of MS typically follows one of these patterns.

Relapsing-Remitting Pattern

In this pattern of progression, periods of severe symptoms (exacerbations) are followed by periods of recovery (remissions). Remissions may last months or even years. Exacerbations may occur with or without a trigger such as infection or stress.

Primary Progressive Pattern

This form of MS progresses gradually with no remissions and no exacerbations. There may be periods when symptoms remain unchanged temporarily.

Secondary Progressive Pattern

After an initial period of remissions and relapses, this form of MS progresses gradually.

Progressive Relapsing Pattern

This form of MS is rare. The pattern is gradual progression of the disease with periods of sudden relapse.

Common Symptoms of MS

The most common first symptoms of MS are:

  • numbness and tingling in one or more extremities, in the trunk, or on one side of the face
  • weakness, tremor, or clumsiness in a leg or hand
  • partial loss of vision, double vision, eye pain, or areas of visual alteration

Other common symptoms include the following.


Fatigue is the most common and often the most disabling symptom of MS. It may occur in several different forms:

  • activity-related fatigue
  • fatigue due to deconditioning (not being in good shape)
  • depression
  • lassitude—also known as “MS fatigue”

The fatigue associated with MS is often worse in the late afternoon.

Bladder and Bowel Dysfunction

Bladder and bowel dysfunction can be ongoing or intermittent problems in MS. Bladder frequency, waking up at night to void, and bladder accidents can be symptoms of this problem. Bowel dysfunction can result in constipation, bowel urgency, loss of control, and irregular bowel habits.


Weakness in multiple sclerosis can be related to an exacerbation or a flare-up or can be an ongoing problem.

Cognitive Changes

Cognitive changes related to MS can be obvious or very subtle. They may include memory loss, poor judgment, decreased attention span, and difficulty reasoning and solving problems.

Acute and Chronic Pain

Like symptoms of weakness, pain in MS can be acute or chronic. Burning sensations and electric shock–like pain can occur spontaneously or in response to being touched.

Muscle Spasticity

MS spasticity can affect your mobility and comfort. Spasticity can be defined as spasms or stiffness and may involve pain and discomfort.


Both clinical depression and a similar, less severe emotional distress are common in people with MS. About 50 percent of patients experience depression at some time during their illness (Siegert & Abernethy, 2005). 

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Break It Down: Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a condition that affects approximately 400,000 Americans. Thankfully, the majority of people with MS have the same life expectancy as persons without the condition. However, they can have a variety of manifestations that impact their quality of life.

MS is an autoimmune disorder that affects the central nervous system, including the brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord.

Multiple sclerosis causes an attack on myelin, a substance that enables signal transmission along the nerves. Scar tissue creates gaps in functional myelin. This affects how messages are transmitted within the brain or along the nerves.

This scarring, or sclerosis, can manifest in different ways, and these effects can change over time, so there may not be a constant pattern of symptoms with MS. The most common symptoms are numbness and tingling in hands and feet, vision problems, poor balance, limited mobility, lack of concentration, and slurred speech.

These symptoms often go through periods of relapse or remissions. Sometimes there aren’t typical outward signs of the disease, so MS is often called a “silent disease.”

Relapsing-remitting MS is a form of the condition characterized by defined periods of relapse and remission without progression. About 85 percent of all patients are initially diagnosed with this form of MS before beginning treatment.

While there is no cure for MS, recent advances have led to effective therapies that can help MS patients manage their symptoms. Disease-modifying drugs work to change your body’s immune response. These treatments are available as oral medications or injections, prescribed by a medical professional. Other medications that are sometimes recommended to MS patients to ease symptoms include muscle relaxants or corticosteroids, the latter to reduce inflammation.

Because MS can be a challenging disease physically and mentally, drug therapy is often supplemented by physical and emotional support from trained therapists.

The key to successfully treating MS involves working closely with your doctor and other specialists. Medications, therapy, and proper lifestyle choices can help ensure that MS remains only a part of your life, not the determining factor of how you should live it.