Signs and Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis You Need to Know

Many people know about multiple sclerosis, or MS, from the fictional character Josiah Bartlett in the hit series The West Wing. Even though that show made MS common knowledge, there are lots of people who still don’t really realize what this disease is and how it affects real people. There are more than one million people in the United States that are currently living with MS. A number that’s more than doubled since researchers last reported on the prevalence of the disease in 1975.

Unlike some other neurological conditions, MS affects primarily young people as most people diagnosed are between the ages of 20 and 50.

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system, where a person’s immune system starts to attack the protective covering on their nerve fibers. This causes a communication breakdown between the brain and the rest of the body. Depending on which nerves are affected, it can cause severe vision, muscle, and balance problems or it can have a minimal effect on your daily life.

It’s unknown what causes MS, but it’s currently considered an autoimmune disease. Some people first develop symptoms after they’ve been exposed to another virus, like Epstein-Barr or herpesvirus 6, while others carry genes that make diagnosis more likely.

Types of MS

There are several different types of MS, which are categorized by the frequency and severity of your symptoms. Typically, when a person is first diagnosed, they’ll have what’s known as relapsing-remitting MS, which means that their symptoms increase in severity for a period of days or weeks, then improve. The remission periods can last for months or years if the patient is able to find a medication that works for them.

The majority of people with relapsing-remitting MS will eventually move into a stage where their symptoms start to steadily increase in frequency and severity. This is called secondary-progressive MS. They may or may not have periods of remission during the secondary-progressive stage.

The last stage of the disease, which is characterized by advancing symptoms, is called primary-progressive MS. At this stage, the patient will not have any periods of remission as symptoms continue to worsen.

Multiple sclerosis doesn’t directly impact your life expectancy, but as the disease progresses, complications like epilepsy, bladder dysfunction, and inflammation of the lungs pose major health risks.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of multiple sclerosis can vary widely depending on which nerves are affected. If you’re a young person and are feeling some of these symptoms and there’s no rational explanation for their appearance, it’s definitely worth consulting a doctor.

Some of the most common initial symptoms of MS include walking and balance problems, vision problems (including double vision or blurred eyesight), dizziness and vertigo, and muscle problems that can be as severe as paralysis or as mild as spasticity and a sudden lack of coordination.

Some other common symptoms include:

  • Numbness;
  • Tingling and electric-shock sensations in the neck;
  • Slurred speech;
  • Erectile dysfunction;
  • Tremors, and;
  • Incontinence.

Fatigue is another symptom that’s often present in the early stages of MS. Because these symptoms come and go, it’s easy to attribute them to mild illness, stress, or lack of sleep. Symptoms of MS can vary widely depending on which nerves are affected. Changes in body temperature which can occur as a result of extreme weather or fever can also temporarily increase the severity of symptoms.

As the diseases progresses, 60 to 70 percent of patients will move from the relapsing-remitting phase to secondary-progressive MS, where their symptoms get worse and more frequent. One hallmark of the secondary-progressive phase is mobility issues, which can affect a person’s ability to get around independently.

Many people with MS experience mental health-related illnesses like depression and anxiety. MS-related depression has just started to get the attention it deserves from clinicians and therapists, which is remarkable considering that more than 50 percent of patients with MS will also be diagnosed with depression. Different research has labeled MS-related depression as both a symptom of the disease itself and a reaction to the effect that other symptoms have on patients. It’s especially important for MS patients to receive mental health support, so they can focus their energy and attention on mitigating symptoms and maintaining a positive outlook.

If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to consult a doctor right away. You’ll likely be referred to a neurologist because it’s quite difficult to diagnose MS. The neurologist will use a mix of tests include blood tests, MRIs, and lumbar puncture tests to rule out related diseases. They may also order a brain scan called an evoked potentials test, which helps them see what’s happening to the electrical signals in your brain.

What to Do After Diagnosis

After your doctor has analyzed the results of your tests, they will start to formulate a treatment plan with the goal of improving your symptoms and increasing the length of your remission periods. With the right medication, many people with relapsing-remitting MS are able to go years without experiencing a relapse. Many of these progression-modifying medications come with significant side effects, so it’s worth working with your doctor to find the right one.

If severe symptoms are interfering with your life and health, your doctor may be able to give you a steroid IV or do a plasma exchange, which offers temporary relief.

In addition to using medications to improve symptoms and minimize complications, it’s also recommended that patients do their best to stay active and keep their diet and lifestyle as healthy as possible. Physical therapy may be useful if you’re experiencing mobility or gait issues.

Many people feel that a diagnosis of MS is a death sentence, but there are lots of ways that you can treat the disease while still living an active, full life. Consistent communication with your doctor and health care team is key to improving your symptoms, and decreasing their frequency.

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