The Telltale Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

If you're worried you might have multiple sclerosis, check out this list of MS symptoms to learn more about the condition and its early warning signs.

Multiple sclerosis, commonly referred to as MS, is a complex disease of the central nervous system with a life-altering progression 1. Some of its early warning signs are surprising and unsettling. This MS symptom checklist will give you a better understanding of how it affects the body.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.

What Is MS?

“To understand the symptoms of MS, we must understand first its cause and anatomy. MS is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the nerve sheath of the central nervous system,” says Sashini Seeni, MBBS, a general practitioner of medicine at DoctorOnCall 2. MS progressively worsens over time, but as scientists learn more about it, more can be done for patients. “With recent studies and research, significant progress has been made to slow down the disease and improve the quality of life of the patients,” says Dr. Seeni.

Knowing what to look for is the first step in getting the proper diagnosis and the best treatment.

Read more: Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms Including a Rash

MS Symptoms Checklist

There are a variety of symptoms associated with MS that doctors check for when examining patients and their medical history. These include:

Vision problems. Visual disturbances, such as blurred vision and double vision, can be one of the first signs of MS, says Dr. Seeni. “Since the immune system attacks the nerve sheaths, this also includes the optic nerve,” she explains. “Over time and often initially, patients will present with eye problems.” Typically, first symptoms appear between the ages of 20 and 40, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) 134.

Numbness and tingling. One of the first signs of MS is numbness in the face or extremities — arms and legs — according to the National MS Society (NMSS) 3. It may feel like your hands or legs have fallen asleep. This can affect basic daily activities like walking, dressing, writing and eating.

Balance difficulty, dizziness and vertigo. MS can cause a lack of coordination, steadiness and even tremors, according to the Mayo Clinic 1. Dr. Seeni notes that this can be due to cerebellar dysfunction, which refers to changes within the part of the brain (the cerebellum) that controls your balance; to ear nerve dysfunction (other nerves that control balance and hearing); or to spinal cord sensation loss. A physical exam and tests, including an MRI, can pinpoint the specific nerves affected. Dizziness and vertigo — the sensation that the room is spinning around you — are also common among people with MS, according to the NMSS. These can contribute to problems with walking.

Bladder and bowel issues. The NMSS also notes that 80 percent of people with MS have bladder dysfunction. Dr. Seeni points out that this includes the inability to hold urine (incontinence), meaning it’s difficult to make it to bathroom before urinating, as well as the inability to pass the urine (retention), meaning once in the bathroom it’s hard for the urine to flow. You may experience constipation or a lack of bowel control.

Read more: Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms in the Knees

Cognitive impairment. Almost 50 percent of people with MS experience difficulties with concentration, attention, memory and poor judgment, according to the NMSS. However, these symptoms are often missed because they're mild at first. Other cognitive signs include problems processing information, remembering new information, problem-solving and organizational skills, things like remembering to pay bills, put your keys back on their hook and retaining the name of someone you met earlier that day.

Fatigue. About 80% of the people who have MS experience fatigue, according to NMSS. It can limit your ability to do everyday tasks, even if MS hasn’t affected motor control or caused debilitating physical changes.

Depression. Emotional changes, including depression, mood swings and irritability, are also on the MS symptom checklist, states the NMMS, and are even more common among people with MS than among those with other lifelong diseases.

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