Multiple sclerosis (MS) damages your central nervous systemic by prompting your own immune system to break down the protecting coating around your nerve cells. Some forms of the disease steadily worsen, while others involve periods of remission and relapse. MS can develop at any time, but it typically strikes between the ages of 20 and 40, making it the most commonly diagnosed neurological disease in younger people. Look out for the following ten frequent warning signs that may lead to an earlier diagnosis and slower progression of MS.
1. Musculoskeletal pain
More than 50% of people with MS have significant pain periodically, while 48% have some form of chronic pain. This discomfort is often felt in muscles that jerk and twitch, though some tremors may be merely annoying rather than painful. Muscle spasms can increase pressure on the muscles and joints, creating pain broadly similar to that felt by people with arthritis or other inflammatory conditions. The back is a particularly common location of MS pain.
2. Optic neuritis
This eye condition develops in relation to inflammation of the optic nerve. It is thought to be the first warning sign in as many as 20% of people who go on to be diagnosed with MS. It typically presents with deep pain behind the eye, flashes of light, blurred vision and the perception of washed out colors. Severe cases may be treated with steroids, and some people are permanently blind in one eye after optic neuritis. However, close to 80% people experience improvement in less than a month and 93% are beginning to recover within five weeks.
3. Numbness and tingling
Those with MS frequently report strange sensations prior to diagnosis. Some discuss tingling, itching or burning feelings in the hands or feet, while others are troubled by numbness in parts of the face or limbs. You may also feel like an electric current is shooting down your back when you move or bend your neck—this is called Lhermitte’s sign. However, it’s important to note that anyone with sudden onset numbness accompanied by weakness or cognitive impairment should receive an immediate workup to rule out a stroke.
4. Impaired balance
MS often causes balance problems such general lightheadedness, feeling faint when getting up, and finding it difficult to walk in a straight line. For example, some patients complain that they frequently walk into the doorframe when trying to enter a room. In extreme cases, you might even experience vertigo, with the room appearing to spin around you. Meanwhile, mild cases may feel more akin to motion sickness or a slightly hangover.
5. Gait abnormalities
Gait problems are regularly reported in conjunction with impaired balance, as there is significant overlap between these two symptoms. MS can cause weakness or tightness in the legs that alters the way you walk, and numbness in the feet may become so severe that it is difficult to judge the location of your feet (a problem known as sensory ataxia).
6. Bladder function changes
Researchers believe that as many as 8 in 10 people with MS will notice intrusive changes in bladder function. The most widespread changes include a need to urinate more frequently, waking up to urinate several times during the night, and leaking urine. These symptoms of an overactive bladder are caused by damage to the nerves in areas of the central nervous system that control the urethral and bladder sphincters.
The bowel is another commonly affected organ, with constipation sometimes appearing in the beginning stages of developing MS. Since constipation can be caused by everything from diet to medication and benign conditions like IBS, it should only be considered a potential symptom of MS if it appears alongside some of the other early warning signs.
8. Cognitive deficits
Some MS sufferers never notice any major changes in their cognitive abilities. However, for others, changes in thinking and awareness can mark the onset of the disease. For example, you might struggle to pay attention for long periods when you used to have remarkable focus, you may forget your plans more easily, or you might notice that you’re sometimes finding it hard to find the right words.
9. Sexual problems
Since sexual arousal originates in the central nervous system, it’s no surprise that sexual function is adversely affected by MS. For women, the most common issues are vaginal dryness and decreased responsiveness to touch, while men may complain of reduced ability to achieve a lasting erection. Changes in libido are also frequently reported, resulting not just from nerve damage but also the anxiety and low mood that can be associated with chronic health problems.
Finally, fatigue (like constipation) should be viewed as a very general symptom that might relate to a huge range of physical and mental health problems. However, if experienced in conjunction with symptoms like impaired balanced, tingling and an episode of optic neuritis, it should be taken as a potential warning sign of MS. The fatigue associated with MS is most often described as daily, severe, present even after a long night’s sleep, and worsened by high temperatures or increasing humidity levels.