Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease with a wide range of symptoms that can mimic other conditions. In MS, the immune system attacks the protective coating of the nerve fibers (a substance known as myelin), causing permanent scarring, or sclerosis. Because nerve damage may occur in different places in the central nervous system — including the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves — there is no single diagnostic test result or telltale symptom that can be considered a definitive sign of MS.
When someone experiences their first symptom of MS, it may be frightening. Early symptoms of MS may be mild, but if you are in tune with your body, you may understand that something is “off.” You may:
It can be scary and make you feel isolated if you’re confused about what is happening.
In an article in Momentum, the magazine of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Ann Borsellino reminisced, “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.”
One study estimated that MS affects nearly 1 million Americans. Many who have the disease can look back and identify one or two early signs of something amiss. Often, it was vision changes, general 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.
Approximately 1 in 4 people who have MS first noticed a problem with their eyesight, according to the United Kingdom’s 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:
If you experience visual dysfunction, ask yourself these questions. You may want to discuss your answers with a doctor.
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 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.
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 earliest signs of the disease. 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:
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 early symptoms, including muscle spasms, spasticity, chronic pain, and mobility issues.
These early symptoms led members to seek medical help that eventually led to their diagnoses.
While visual disturbances, weakness, tingling, and numbness may be common early signs of MS, there is a wide range of symptoms that can be felt in many parts of the body — from migraine headaches to toe tingling. Symptoms 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, 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 gives you the diagnosis of MS, you can learn to manage your symptoms with appropriate MS treatment and healthy living strategies.
MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 195,000 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 start a conversation on MyMSTeam. You never know who could benefit from hearing about your experience.