What are the early signs of multiple sclerosis?

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An Early Diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis can Prolong Quality of Life

Chronic illnesses are difficult to live with and can be unpredictable in nature. When a diagnosis can be obtained early on, the symptoms a disease can cause may be treatable.

An early diagnosis of a chronic illness like multiple sclerosis can lead to the treatment of troublesome symptoms.

Knowing what the early signs of multiple sclerosis are can lead to an early diagnosis and help treat and alleviate some of the symptoms.

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple Sclerosis is a progressive immune disorder affecting 400,000 people in the United States.

The immune system that is designed to protect your body from illnesses begins to attack necessary systems in the body that are needed for normal functioning.

The immune system specifically attacks the protective coverings on neurons which can lead to lowered functioning in the brain and spinal cord.

Without this protective covering, called the myelin sheath, scar tissue begins to form causing blockage of the nerve signals.

What Causes Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages of the disease.

Symptoms can come and go and may affect different areas during each attack. The pattern of the disease widely varies between sufferers of the disease.

Research is still being done to determine what the cause of multiple sclerosis is. Genetics seem to play a large role in determining who will get the disease.

The incidence of one identical twin having MS if the other is diagnosed is between twenty and forty percent.

Geography may also play a role in who gets multiple sclerosis. Researchers have found a higher incidence of MS in cooler climates than in people living in tropical climates.

What are the Types of Multiple Sclerosis?

Relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis is the most common type of MS. The first signs of the disease occur in the early twenties.

Individuals have relapses of the disease with symptoms followed by long periods of time in remission.

Over time, this type of MS will continue on to a later, progressive stage of the disease.

Primary progressive multiple sclerosis is defined a gradual worsening of the disease with no well-defined period of relapse and recovery.

Unfortunately, treatments for this type of MS do not work as well as with the more common type.

In contrast to remitting-relapsing MS, this type of disease usually begins around age forty and leads to an earlier onset of disability.

Secondary progressive multiple sclerosis is the later stage of remitting-relapsing MS.

According to the Mayo Clinic, sixty to seventy percent of MS patients will go on to develop this stage of the disease.

During this stage of the disease, attacks become more regular without the usual remission afterward.

This stage typically begins between ten and twenty years after the onset of original symptoms.

What are the Early Signs of Multiple Sclerosis?

The symptoms of multiple sclerosis vary from person to person. They can be severe in some, while less so in others.

Not everyone with multiple sclerosis will experience the same symptoms nor will they experience the same severity of these symptoms.

To get an idea of what one person’s experience with the early stages of MS, this video of a patient describing his early experiences with the disease can be helpful.

There are a variety of early signs to look for that will help in the diagnosis and treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Vision Disturbances

Problems with vision are one of the more common early signs of multiple sclerosis. The optic nerve can be damaged which causes blurred vision, double vision, or loss of vision entirely.

Colors may appear dull and pain in the eye with movement may occur. It typically only affects one eye, but in rare cases, it involves both.

Visual disturbances may be only minor annoyances at first and come and go. This is because the degeneration of the optic nerve protection can be slow.

Tingling and Numbness

The body’s brain and spinal cord send signals via nerves to other parts of the body.

When these nerves begin to degenerate, the signals they send can become disrupted or be interrupted entirely.

When the signals become disrupted, tingling in the face, arms, legs, and fingers are often felt.

Numbness caused by the complete interruption of nerve signals will usually appear in these areas first as well.

Other strange sensations may be noticed during an attack. A feeling like an electric shock that travels down the spine and into the arms and legs when the head or neck is moved can occur.

This is called Lhermitte’s sign and it is a common symptom of the first stages of multiple sclerosis. A feeling of tightness or swelling when none is occurring can happen as well.

Pain and Muscle Spasms

Signals from the nerves to the muscles are affected by multiple sclerosis. These conflicting signals can cause involuntary muscle spasms and chronic pain.

Early signs of multiple sclerosis can include stiff muscles and joints and possibly involuntary jerking movements of the arms and legs. These uncontrollable movements often cause pain in sufferers.

Generalized Weakness and Fatigue

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the early stage of MS causes fatigue and weakness in eighty percent of those affected.

The damaged nerves inside the spinal column are unable to send signals properly, causing weakness and fatigue.

The legs are usually affected by weakness and fatigue first. These symptoms can last weeks and then disappear for long periods of time.

Weakness and fatigue are reported to occur when the body is warm. This can happen during exercise or any activity that warms the body.

The arms and legs may be difficult to control due to weakness during heat-related activities, but as the body cools the symptoms go away.

Balance Issues

Vertigo is a common sign of multiple sclerosis. It can cause problems with a person’s balance and coordination.

It is commonly noticed by others when the affected person walks. The dizziness will affect the gait of someone with multiple sclerosis.


An early warning sign of multiple sclerosis includes problems with elimination. This may exhibit itself with frequent urination, strong urges to urinate, and being incontinent of urine.

This is due to conflicting signals to the bladder muscles. Bowel issues are less common but can produce constipation, diarrhea, or stool incontinence.

Cognitive Dysfunction

Because the immune system is attacking the protective sheath of the neurons in the brain, this can lead to cognitive problems.

Problems with short-term memory, language issues, and problems staying focused are often the symptoms first recognized.

Emotional Problems

Depending on the severity of the other symptoms of multiple sclerosis, depression can be a common problem for sufferers.

Chronic pain, loss of mobility, and disruptions to the usual thought process can result in irritability, mood swings, and uncontrollable laughing or crying.

Sexual Dysfunction

MS disturbs the nerve signals that are responsible for sexual arousal. Dysfunction can occur in men that are unable to achieve or maintain an erection.

For women, vaginal lubrication can be reduced causing pain during intercourse.

How is Multiple Sclerosis Diagnosed?

In order to properly diagnose multiple sclerosis, a physician will need to perform a series of tests to look for damage to the central nervous system.

Symptoms will usually occur sporadically in the early stages of multiple sclerosis during or immediately after an attack.

These symptoms may fade and then return with months or sometimes years in between.

The attacks can last a few weeks and then disappear as well. This makes it difficult for a proper diagnosis.

A physician may perform blood tests to rule out other causes of symptoms. An MRI can show any damage caused to areas of the brain.

A spinal tap allows doctors to check the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

The fluid may show signs that the immune system is attacking the nervous system and lead to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Unfortunately, relapses of the disease will progressively become worse, be unpredictable, and exhibit different symptoms each time.

Early detection and diagnosis may be able to help multiple sclerosis from rapidly progressing.

What is the Treatment for Multiple Sclerosis?

There is no cure for multiple sclerosis. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, treatment focuses on managing symptoms during an attack and slowing the progression of the disease.

Since multiple sclerosis is a disease resulting from an overactive immune system, most treatments are focused on suppressing the immune system.

Treatments available to halt the progression of the disease once it is advanced can carry significant health risks.

Determining which treatment will be the best fit is dependent on many factors such as when the disease started, how severe the attacks are, if previous MS treatment were effective, any other underlying health conditions if the patient can afford treatments, and if the patient plans on having children.

Many of the treatments available have troublesome side effects that will also need to be considered.

In addition to immunosuppressants, patients also treat the symptoms of the disease which can be debilitating.

Muscle relaxants can help with painful and uncontrollable spasms. Physical therapy can help with strengthening and stretching exercises to make it easier for patients to perform activities of daily living.

Multiple sclerosis is a progressive disease. An early diagnosis can give patients hope for a better long-term outlook by lowering the rate of attacks.

Fewer relapses mean fewer lesions on the nerves and fewer symptoms later in life. The importance of recognizing the early signs of MS cannot be overstated.

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