Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a potentially disabling autoimmune disorder in which the body starts to attack the myelin sheath (the outer part of nerve cells), leading to mixed or poor signaling in the body and difficulty performing regular tasks such as walking.
The first common symptoms of MS for most people occur between the ages of 20 and 40, but it can develop even at age 60. In many cases, early symptoms will get better but then come back in what is termed an MS flare-up. Some symptoms may come and go, while others will be persistent and might even worsen over time.
If you notice any of the following sudden changes, it might be time to keep a diary of your symptoms and bring your diary to a doctor for further investigation:
- Frequent blurred or double vision
- Loss of vision in one eye
- Pain when you move one eye
- Thinking problems, “brain fog”
- A lack of coordination when walking or doing other normal tasks
- Loss of balance
- Numbness in the arms or legs
- Tingling sensations throughout the body, particularly arms, legs, hands, and feet
- Weakness in an arm or leg
- Pain when you bend your head forward
These symptoms might vanish, only to be replaced with others. This is due to different nerves being affected, at different rates. This also means that no two people have exactly the same common symptoms of MS, and the course of the disease is unpredictable.
Some MS patients may have a single symptom, and then go months or years without any others. Some problems can also happen, go away, and never return. For other people, the symptoms become worse within weeks or months.
Challenging Symptoms of MS
Around 40% of those who develop MS report strong, painful muscle spasms, especially in the legs, as a first sign that something is wrong. Around 60% will experience them in the course of their illness.
Most people with MS also report problems with their eyes as a warning sign that something might be going on. Sight may be blurry, double, or gray. Some people see a dark spot in the center of their vision. They might also get eye pain and sudden vision loss in one eye. Any of these would be a clear indication it is time to go to the doctor.
Around half of all MS patients report numbness, itching, burning or stabbing pains. They can usually be managed or treated with various medications.
Around 80% of those with MS have bladder problems, including frequent urination, getting up at night to go, and loss of control (incontinence).
Bowel problems, especially constipation, are also common. Some people can also experience fecal incontinence.
Muscle weakness and spasms can make it hard to work or perform regular activities of daily living (ADL). Balance problems, numb feet, and fatigue can also make walking a challenge. Assistive aids and/or a wheelchair can help.
Around 80% of MS sufferers report extreme fatigue, especially in the afternoons, resulting in weak muscles, slowed thinking, and extreme sleepiness. Fatigue is often not related to the amount of activity you have been engaging in or how much rest you have had.
Checking with Your Doctor
If you are suddenly noticing any of the symptoms above, don’t wait in the hopes that things will get better. They can often get worse with MS if you don’t practice good self-care. While it is distressing to receive a diagnosis of any medical condition, it is also true that in most cases, medications, physical therapy, and other treatments can keep many of the challenges of MS under control. Most people are able to develop a routine that helps manage their symptoms so they can keep leading full, active lives.