10 Early Signs of Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an incurable immune-mediated medical condition that affects the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS includes the brain and spinal cord.
The immune system erroneously perceives the myelin that protects the neurons, or nerve cells, of your CNS as “foreign” and wages a war culminating in its destruction. It is this destruction of myelin that leads to the characteristic signs and symptoms of MS, which affect nearly one million Americans and 2.3 million individuals worldwide.
1. Visual Disturbances
Optic neuritis, or inflammation of the optic nerve, is one of the most common early signs of MS.
The condition usually affects only one eye at a time. It is classically characterized by:
- Eye pain, which increases with eye movement;
- Blurred vision, and;
Most individuals with MS and optic neuritis will experience temporary partial loss of vision, while some individuals will experience complete, irreversible loss of vision.
2. Pins and Needles
Many individuals with MS report feeling numbness and tingling. This feeling is often described as a “pins and needles”-type sensation. The sensation is intermittent and most often occurs in the face, arms, legs, or feet.
A common and important cause of tingling and numbness in MS patients is transverse myelitis, or inflammation of the spinal cord. Transverse myelitis can be either:
- Acute: Developing over hours to days.
- Subacute: Developing over one to four weeks.
Fatigue is another common early sign of MS. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society estimates that 80 percent of individuals with MS have this complaint at some point during the evolution of their disease.
There are two types of fatigue that plague individuals with MS. They are:
- A generalized feeling of tiredness, and;
- Muscular fatigue, which manifests as weakness after repetitive activities.
Pain associated with MS can be acute or chronic in nature. As the disease affects the nerves, the pain mostly arises from this source, which is termed neuropathic pain.
Notable examples of acute neuropathic pain in MS patients include trigeminal neuralgia, L’hermitte’s sign, and the “MS hug.”
5. Muscle Stiffness and Spasm
Muscle stiffness and spasm — commonly referred to as spasticity — are another common early sign of MS. This symptom most commonly occurs in the legs. As such, it can give rise to pain and problems with walking.
Common triggers for this symptom are:
- Sudden movements;
- Extremes of temperature, and;
- Certain infections.
Another common early symptom of MS is dizziness. It is often described as lightheadedness or vertigo.
Dizziness is most often noticed when MS patients sit up in bed quickly or go from sitting to standing quickly. This symptom often makes individuals with MS feel uneasy walking, which can limit their mobility and put them at increased risk for falls.
Unfortunately, this symptom is unresponsive to common motion sickness remedies, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or scopolamine.
7. Bladder and Bowel Issues
In individuals with MS, bladder dysfunction is much more common than bowel dysfunction. In fact, upwards of 80 percent of MS patients report symptoms referable to this organ.
Bladder issues may include:
- Polyuria (frequent urination);
- Nocturia (frequent nighttime urination);
- Retention (inability to completely empty the bladder), and;
- Incontinence (inability to hold urine).
Bowel issues may include:
- Constipation, and;
- Incontinence (complete loss of bowel control).
8. Sexual Health Problems
Because sexual arousal originates in the CNS, it is not uncommon for MS patients to have sexual problems.
Both men and women with MS may experience loss of sexual desire. In fact, as many as 63 percent of MS patients reporting curtailed sexual activity after their diagnosis.
Additionally, men may experience erectile dysfunction, or difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse.
9. Problems with Memory and Thinking
Many MS patients will report problems with their memory and thinking, which are clinically referred to as cognitive functions. Early in the course of the disease, these problems are mild and may manifest as forgetfulness and difficulties with language, concentration, and learning.
Fortunately, there are at least two medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of these symptoms. They are interferon beta-1a (Avonex) and interferon beta-1b (Betaseron).
10. Psychological Problems
Changes in mood are commonplace in those affected by MS. Unfortunately, these mood swings may be harbingers of more serious psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
The American Academy of Neurology estimates that anywhere from 33 percent to 50 percent of MS patients will have an episode of major depression during the course of their illness. Plus, anxiety disorders affect up to 33 percent of the same patient population.
When to See A Doctor
If you suspect that you may be experiencing the early symptoms of MS, you may need an evaluation by a neurologist for definitive diagnosis and treatment.
This can be difficult as the symptoms of MS, especially if early, are intermittent. Whatever you do, fight the temptation to minimize the symptoms, as this will only delay your diagnosis and treatment.
Today, although the course of MS is often unpredictable, there are many treatments available that have the potential to alleviate bothersome symptoms and improve the prognosis, or outlook, for the disease. This makes early diagnosis and treatment all the more important.