Could You Have MS? 16 Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms
What is MS?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system, meaning it affects the brain and spinal cord.
In the most common type (known as relapsing remitting MS), symptoms come and go. These can run the gamut from mild tingling to more severe vision loss.
However, MS is tricky. Because so many other conditions can also cause similar symptoms, a hypochondriac could easily think they have it when they don't. On the other side, it can take years or even decades for people with MS to be diagnosed. Only a doctor can perform the appropriate tests to confirm whether these symptoms are indeed MS.
“People describe it as unlike anything they’ve ever felt,” says Rosalind Kalb, Ph.D., vice president of the Professional Resource Center at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in New York City.
Sometimes the feelingor lack thereofprogresses over hours or days, but it usually subsides on its own.
Tingling is related to numbness and may feel like your arm, fingers, or toes are falling asleep, yet never quite waking up. Like other MS symptoms, this is a result of damaged nerves sending mixed signals to the different parts of the body.
People may also experience something called the “MS hug.”
“It feels like somebody is grabbing them very tightly around the midsection, but it’s not muscular,” says Kalb, who is also principal author of MS For Dummies. “It’s a sensory phenomenon that feels like this tight banding.”
Balance and coordination problems
People may report they feel suddenly weak in one limb or they may find objects slipping easily out of their hands. If there’s damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance, people might also be unsteady on their feet and prone to falling.
In extreme cases, spasticity can cause a person’s body to become distorted and twisted, almost as if they’re folded up like a pretzel. The symptom often goes hand-in-hand with weakness of the limbs or other parts of the body.
These symptoms usually result from optic neuritis or inflammation of the optic nerve, says Mark Keegan, M.D., associate professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Although vision problems can interfere with working and driving, they do tend to resolve on their own.
But pain can also be musculoskeletal, resulting not from nerve damage, but from impaired gait that causes misalignment of the hips and spine.
Or people might have the opposite problem with the bladder responding to even the tiniest bit of fluid. “You’re always feeling like you have to go to the bathroom but there’s nothing there,” says Kalb. The brain is either telling the bladder it’s full when it’s empty, or signaling it’s empty when it’s full.
The problem can be compounded if the person also has bladder dysfunction and is cutting back on water. “That only contributes to the constipation problem,” Kalb says.
Dizziness and vertigo
The good news is that the symptoms often do go away and, for others, common drugs used to treat dizziness and vertigo in otherwise healthy people can be effective.
In addition, people with MS might feel reticent about sex because they’re tired or are worried about bladder control. Some MS medications can also affect sexual function.
But simply living with a chronic, unpredictable disease can trigger depression. “The most important thing for people with MS and their families to understand is that this is not about being weak or crazy or somehow emotionally damaged,” says Kalb. “This is a symptom of MS just like any other symptom that needs to be appropriately treated.”
Once these problems start, they often don’t go away, but they do progress slowly. “With appropriate diagnosis and strategies for managing, people can stay ahead of it and use compensatory strategies,” says Kalb. Cognitive changes are severe for only a small percentage of people.
MS can also involve mood swings and irritability, although the irritability may be a consequence of depression.
Speech and voice disorders
Up to 40% of people with MS experience problems with their voice or speech.
One possible problem is dysarthria, a motor speech problem that manifests as slurring, poor articulation of words, and speaking too loudly or too softly. Another possibility is dysphonia, a change in voice quality, such as sounding hoarse or nasal.