Multiple sclerosis 101

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an immune system disease that affects the central nervous system. With MS, inflammation damages myelin, the protective covering around nerve cells. The resulting lesions, or scar tissue, interfere with the transmission of nerve signals.

Symptoms of MS can include vision problems, numbness of the limbs, and balance issues. Dizziness and vertigo are common symptoms of MS though most people don’t have them as their first symptoms. Read on to learn more about these symptoms and what to do about them.

Many people with MS experience episodes of dizziness, which can make you feel lightheaded or off-balance. Some also have episodes of vertigo. Vertigo is the false sensation of whirling or spinning of yourself or the world around you. According to one report, about 20 percent of people with MS experience vertigo.

Dizziness and vertigo contribute to balance problems, which are common in people with MS. Ongoing dizziness and vertigo can interfere with daily tasks, increase the risk of falls, and can even become disabling.

Vertigo is an intense sensation of spinning, even if you’re not moving. It’s similar to what you feel on a twirling amusement park ride. The first time you experience vertigo can be very unsettling, even frightening.

Vertigo may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. It can continue for hours, or even days. Sometimes, dizziness and vertigo are accompanied by vision problems, tinnitus or hearing loss, or trouble standing or walking.

The lesions that result from MS make it difficult for nerves within the central nervous system to send messages to the rest of the body. This causes MS symptoms, which vary according to the location of the lesions. A lesion or lesions in the brain stem or cerebellum, the area of the brain that controls balance, may cause vertigo.

Vertigo can also be a symptom of a problem with the inner ear. Other possible causes of dizziness or vertigo include certain medications, blood vessel disease, migraine, or stroke. Your doctor can help you rule out other possible causes of vertigo.

When vertigo occurs, the following steps can help you stay safe and feel more comfortable:

  • Sit down until it passes.
  • Avoid moving your head or body position.
  • Turn down bright lights and don’t try to read.
  • Avoid stairs and don’t attempt to drive until you’re sure the vertigo has passed.
  • Begin moving very slowly when you feel better.

If vertigo strikes during the night, sit up straight, turn on soft lighting, and remain still until you feel better. Vertigo may return when you turn the light off and lie down. A comfortable recliner may help.

Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-motion sickness medications may be all you need. These are available as oral tablets or as skin patches. If dizziness or vertigo becomes chronic (long-lasting), your doctor may prescribe more powerful anti-motion sickness or anti-nausea medications.

In cases of severe vertigo, your doctor may suggest a short course of corticosteroids. Also, physical therapy may be helpful in improving balance and coordination.

The balance issues caused by dizziness and vertigo increase the risk of injury due to falls. This is especially true for people whose MS symptoms already include trouble walking, weakness, and fatigue. A few safety measures around the home can help reduce this risk:

  • Clear your home of tripping hazards, especially throw rugs.
  • Use a cane or a walker.
  • Install handrails and grab bars.
  • Use a shower chair.

Most importantly, be sure to sit down when you feel dizzy or feel the spins coming on.

Tell your doctor if you have MS and experience frequent bouts of dizziness or vertigo. They can examine you and rule out other problems to determine if MS is the cause of the issue. Whatever the cause ends up being, your doctor can recommend a course of treatment to help you feel better.