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3 Early Symptoms of MS: What MS Feels Like in the Beginning

Medically reviewed by Chiara Rocchi, M.D.
Written by Mary K. Talbot
Updated on January 22, 2024

Lea este artículo en español

Experiencing symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) for the first time can be frightening, and it may make you feel isolated if you’re confused about what is happening. “Many times early on in my disease, I wished I had something people could see because then they would know what I was going through,” said New York high school teacher Ann Borsellino in an interview with Momentum, the magazine of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Though early symptoms of MS may be mild, they usually represent a definite change from how you normally feel. You may:

  • Have visual changes
  • Experience numbness or weakness
  • Notice balance issues
  • Develop bowel or bladder problems


Early symptoms of MS may be mild, but if you are in tune with your body, you may understand that something is “off.”

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Although there is no cure for MS, treatment and lifestyle changes can help modify the course of the disease, manage symptoms, and improve quality of life.

What Is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory autoimmune disease with a wide range of symptoms that can mimic other conditions. In MS, the immune system attacks a person’s myelin — the protective coating of the nerve fibers — causing permanent scarring (lesions), or sclerosis. This process is called demyelination.

Myelin damage may occur in different places in the central nervous system — including the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. As such, there’s no single diagnostic test, such as a blood test, for the condition nor any telltale symptoms that are definitive signs of the condition. A neurologist will make a diagnosis based on an individual’s symptoms, the results of brain imaging, and, in some cases, a test looking at the fluid around the spine.

One study estimated that MS affects nearly 1 million Americans, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Many people living with the disease can look back and identify one or two early episodes prior to being diagnosed when something was amiss. Often, it was vision changes, muscle weakness, or numbness that led them to seek an MS diagnosis.

Here’s what you should know about three of the early symptoms of MS that can affect both women and men.

1. Vision Changes

Approximately 1 in 4 people who have MS first noticed a problem with their eyesight, according to the NHS. A condition known as optic neuritis, caused by inflammation of the optic nerve, is common in MS. “My first symptom was optic neuritis,” one MyMSTeam member shared. “I couldn’t see out of the right side of my eye and couldn’t cross the street by myself.”

Vision problems can include:

  • Blurred vision (usually in one eye)
  • Pain when you make eye movements
  • Double vision
  • Color blindness or loss of color vision
  • Flashing lights
  • Loss of vision

If you experience visual dysfunction, ask yourself these questions. You may want to discuss your answers with a doctor.

  • Is my vision blurred in one eye?
  • Do I have any eye pain?
  • Does it hurt to change visual direction?
  • Has the problem lasted more than one or two days?

2. Muscle Weakness

Muscle weakness can be an early sign of MS. One MyMSTeam member shared, “I went to pick up a coffee cup, and it slipped right out of my hands and shattered on the floor.” Another said, “I had difficulty lifting my left foot up, so I was tripping and scuffing everywhere.”

Although weakness can be attributable to excessive physical exertion or injury, people with MS can experience these sensations in a specific body part and over several days with no obvious cause. If you find yourself feeling unusually weak or having trouble with physical coordination over a period of days, contact a health care professional.


Listen to your body. If you’re concerned that something doesn’t feel quite right, call your physician.

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Some members have reported that weakness becomes worse if they feel overheated. Read about how to manage heat sensitivity and MS.

3. Numbness and Tingling

The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation estimates that up to 55 percent of people with MS identify numbness, tingling, and other unusual sensations as some of the most common symptoms of MS attacks. These altered sensations are called dysesthesias. “The first symptoms I had were numb patches over my torso,” one MyMSTeam member said. “My right hip and buttock went numb,” another shared.

In addition to numbness, you may notice some of these sensations in your arms, legs, hands, or feet:

  • Pins and needles
  • Burning
  • Sensitivity to touch

Early MS Symptoms in Women and Men

Many early symptoms of MS are the same for all people, regardless of sex or gender. However, these factors can also influence how a person experiences MS. Notably, multiple sclerosis is three times more common among women than men, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

According to Mass General Brigham, early indicators of MS in women include vaginal dryness, sexual dysfunction, and amenorrhea (absence of a period). Some women experience worse symptoms — such as depression, fatigue, and weakness — during menstruation, according to Mass General Brigham. During menopause, some women experience worse symptoms while others experience fewer relapses.

In men, early symptoms can include erectile dysfunction, a decrease in libido (sex drive), and anorgasmia (difficulty achieving orgasm), according to Mass General Brigham.

Compared to women, men are also more likely to experience difficulties with coordination and balance and to develop cognitive issues affecting memory, learning, focus, and/or the ability to make decisions, per Mass General Brigham.

What MyMSTeam Members Say

Many members of MyMSTeam have reported that visual disturbances, numbness, or muscle weakness were early signs of MS in their lives. One member wrote, “I had weakness on my right side. An on-call general practitioner sent me to the emergency room in a taxi. Staff were waiting for me and treated me for a possible stroke. I spent 10 days in the hospital before I was diagnosed using an MRI scan.”

MyMSTeam members have also shared a wide range of other symptoms they experienced early on that helped in the identification of MS, including pain and mobility issues.

  • “The tops of my feet hurt.”
  • “I had just returned from overseas. I started losing my balance a lot. I thought it was jet lag.”
  • “I had terrible electric shocks down my spine when looking down.”

These early symptoms led members to seek medical help that eventually led to their diagnoses.

What To Do if You Notice Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms

While visual disturbances, weakness, tingling, and numbness may be common early signs of MS, there is a wide range of sensations associated with MS that can be more subtle to identify. Neurological symptoms that affect the central nervous system in MS vary from person to person, and only a physician can make an accurate diagnosis.

Listen to your body. If you’re concerned that something doesn’t feel quite right, call your physician. Whether you’re experiencing eye issues, muscle weakness, headaches, vertigo, or bladder or bowel problems such as severe constipation or incontinence, it’s important to communicate your concerns immediately.

Advocate for yourself, and be as specific as possible about your symptoms to ensure your doctor can make an accurate and timely diagnosis. You may be experiencing something unrelated to MS, or it may be a fleeting, temporary symptom. However, if a qualified neurologist has recently given you a diagnosis of MS, you can learn to manage your symptoms with appropriate MS treatment and healthy living strategies.

Find Your Team

MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 206,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MS.

What were your earliest symptoms of MS? Comment below or post to your Activities feed.

    Lea este artículo en español

      Updated on January 22, 2024
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      Chiara Rocchi, M.D. completed medical school and neurology residency at Polytechnic Marche University in Italy. Learn more about her here.
      Mary K. Talbot is a graduate of Providence College (Rhode Island) and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University (Illinois). Learn more about her here.

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