MS is a progressive, “immune-mediated” disorder. That means the system designed to keep your body healthy mistakenly attacks parts of your body that are vital to everyday function. The protective coverings of nerve cells are damaged, which leads to diminished function in the brain and spinal cord. The cause of MS largely remains a mystery, even though the disease was discovered in 1868. Researchers know the nerve damage is caused by inflammation, but the cause of the inflammation is still unknown. Here are some of the most common symptoms:
MS and Vision Problems
Visual problems are one of the most common symptoms of MS. Inflammation affects the optic nerve and disrupts central vision. This can cause blurry, double, or loss of vision. You may not notice the vision problems immediately, as degeneration of clear vision can be slow. Pain when you look up or to one side also can accompany vision loss.
Tingling and Numbness
MS affects nerves in the brain and spinal cord (the body’s message center). This means it can send conflicting signals around the body. Sometimes, no signals are sent. This results in numbness. Tingling sensations and numbness are one of the most common warning signs of MS. Common sites of numbness include the face, arms, legs, and fingers.
Pain and Spasms
Chronic pain and involuntary muscle spasms are also common with MS. One study, according to the National MS Society, showed that half of people with MS had chronic pain. Muscle stiffness or spasms (spasticity) are also common. You might experience stiff muscles or joints as well as uncontrollable, painful jerking movements of the extremities. The legs are most often affected, but back pain is also common.
Fatigue and Weakness
Unexplained fatigue and weakness affect about 80 percent of people in the early stages of MS. Chronic fatigue occurs when nerves deteriorate in the spinal column. Usually, the fatigue appears suddenly and lasts for weeks before improving. The weakness is most noticeable in the legs at first.
Balance Problems and Dizziness
Dizziness and problems with coordination and balance can decrease the mobility of someone with MS. Your doctor may refer to these as problems with your gait. People with MS often feel lightheaded, dizzy, or feel as if their surroundings are spinning (vertigo). This symptom often occurs when a person stands up.
Bladder, Bowel, and Sexual Dysfunction
A dysfunctional bladder is another symptom occurring in up to 80 percent of people with MS. This can include urinating frequently, strong urges to urinate, or inability to hold in urine. Urinary-related symptoms are often manageable. Less often, people with MS experience constipation, diarrhea, or loss of bowel control. Sexual arousal can also be a problem for people with MS because it begins in the central nervous system — where MS attacks.
Major depression is common among people with MS. The stresses of MS can also cause irritability, mood swings, and a condition called pseudobulbar affect. This involves bouts of uncontrollable crying and laughing. Coping with MS symptoms, along with relationship or family issues, can make depression and other emotional disorders even more challenging.