What are symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS)?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Multiple sclerosis leaves your nerves at risk when their protective layer of fatty myelin is damaged. This can happen anywhere throughout the nervous system, which means the symptoms will vary depending on where your system is damaged. Common symptoms include tiredness; problems with coordination or balance; vision problems; cognitive issues; numbness, prickling or dizziness, altered mood; or bladder, bowel or sexual dysfunction. Less common symptoms associated with more severe cases could include itching, headaches, respiratory issues, trouble swallowing, shakiness, seizures, paralysis or the loss of speech or hearing.

Dr. Michael T. Murray, ND
Naturopathic Medicine Specialist

Symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) include sudden transient motor and sensory disturbances, such as blurred vision, dizziness, muscle weakness, and tingling sensations. Generally, only one or two symptoms present initially. As the disease progresses, the initial symptoms worsen and other symptoms can develop. The diagnosis is confirmed by the detection of evidence of demyelination on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

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Symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) occur when nerves are damaged. Nerve damage in MS causes symptoms that can happen all over the body depending on where the nerve damage is. Symptoms can come and go. When they come back, it’s called a relapse or an MS attack. Some symptoms of MS include:

  • unsteadiness and feeling very tired, sad or forgetful
  • problems with feeling sensations and seeing
  • numbness in legs or arms, as well as the sensation of pins and needles
  • bowel and bladder problems
  • problems walking and moving other parts of the body

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain and the spinal cord. Everyone who is diagnosed with MS experiences the disease in their own way. Symptoms vary from person to person and even from day to day in each individual. The following are the most common symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS):

  • Fatigue, also known as lassitude, is the most common symptom of MS. It may involve muscle weakness, mental fatigue, sleepiness or drowsiness.
  • Visual problems in MS are common. Blurred vision, nystagmus (uncontrolled eye movements), temporary blindness—usually in one eye—and double vision are also common.
  • Changes in cognitive function involve attention, concentration, the ability to understand or express language, and information processing speed. The most common symptom associated with MS is mild to moderate impairment of short-term memory.
  • Dizziness can cause a feeling of being off balance, faint, or lightheaded. Vertigo may cause a person to feel that they or their surroundings are spinning.
  • Sensory problems/pain can occur as a "pins and needles" sensation, numbness, itching, or burning. A stabbing or sudden burst of facial pain, known as trigeminal neuralgia, can also occur.
  • Spasticity, also known as muscle spasms, usually affects the muscles of the legs and arms. It can cause stiffness and pain and may interfere with the ability to move the muscles freely.
  • Depression is common among those with MS and research indicates that about half of people with the disease will experience a major depressive episode during the course of their illness.
  • Bladder and bowel may cause frequency, urgency, dribbling, hesitancy, and incontinence. Bowel dysfunction may consist of constipation, diarrhea and incontinence.
  • Gait impairment, or difficulty walking, including: extremity ataxia, such as shaky movements, tremors, swaying, staggering, loss of balance and coordination, or weakness.
  • Speech and swallowing problems may include changes in speech patterns or slurred speech. Reduced muscle strength or coordination can also cause difficulty swallowing. This is known as dysphagia.
  • Tremor refers to an involuntary, rhythmic movement of the arms, legs or head. Intention tremor refers to a relatively slow, back and forth movement of a limb engaged in purposeful movement, such as pointing the finger toward the nose.
  • Changes in sexual function are also common in MS. A decrease or loss of sex drive, decreased or unpleasant genital sensations, and diminished capacity for orgasm may occur.
  • Sensitivity to heat is common in MS and refers to a temporary worsening of symptoms that may occur when the core body temperature becomes elevated.

Symptoms of multiple sclerosis may be mild or severe and can occur in varying degrees of intensity. Relapses or the exacerbation of symptoms can last for days or weeks and then resolve. Over time, the symptoms of multiple sclerosis can also become chronic and longstanding.

The initial symptom of multiple sclerosis is often blurred or double vision, loss of color vision, or even blindness in one eye. Individuals with multiple sclerosis may experience muscle weakness in their extremities and difficulty with coordination and balance. Some might experience numbness or "pins and needles." Others may have pain or loss of feeling. Heat may cause a temporary worsening of many symptoms.

Multiple sclerosis can cause cognitive impairments such as difficulties with concentration, memory, and judgment. Such impairments are usually mild and rarely disabling. Intellectual and language abilities are generally spared.

Bladder problems or urinary dysfunction are common with multiple sclerosis, although they may not affect everyone with the disease. For those who do experience urinary problems, symptoms vary from person to person and must be dealt with on an individual basis. Symptoms are often manageable, so be sure to tell your doctor as soon as you experience any problems.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Because we depend on our nervous system for many things, having our nervous system malfunction because of multiple sclerosis (MS) can lead to a wide array of symptoms, which include:

  • Numbness or weakness in one or more of your limbs
  • Loss of vision
  • Having double vision or blurry vision
  • Feeling tingling or pain in one or more parts of your body
  • Feeling electric-shock sensations when you move your head in certain ways
  • Feeling unsteady or losing coordination while walking or standing
  • Having stiff muscles or muscle spasms
  • Extreme fatigue or dizziness

These symptoms come and go and tend to be triggered by stress or an increase in body temperature. Because people with MS experience so many different types of symptoms, it makes it very hard to diagnose. Doctors may mistake the symptoms of MS for other diseases, and because there is no definitive test for MS, it very hard to confirm that someone who may present with MS symptoms actually has MS.

Sometimes, the symptoms become very serious. Some may experience paralysis in the legs. Some may become incontinent, while others experience depression or difficulty concentrating. Some are also at higher risk of epilepsy.

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Specific symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis (MS) can include:

  • Fatigue: a debilitating kind of general fatigue that is unpredictable and out of proportion to the activity. Fatigue is one of the most common (and one of the most troubling) symptoms of MS.
  • Cognitive function: short-term memory problems and difficulty concentrating and thinking, typically not severe enough to seriously interfere with daily functioning, although sometimes it does. Judgment and reasoning may also be affected.
  • Visual disturbances: blurring of vision, double vision (diplopia), optic neuritis, involuntary rapid eye movement and (rarely) total loss of sight.
  • Balance and coordination problems: loss of balance, tremor, unstable walking (ataxia), dizziness (vertigo), clumsiness of a limb and lack of coordination.
  • Weakness: usually in the legs.
  • Spasticity: altered muscle tone can produce spasms or muscle stiffness, which can affect mobility and walking.
  • Altered sensation: tingling, numbness (paresthesia), a burning feeling in an area of the body or other indefinable sensations.
  • Abnormal speech: slowing of speech, slurring of words and changes in rhythm of speech.
  • Difficulty in swallowing (dysphagia).
  • Bladder and bowel problems: the need to urinate frequently and/or urgently, incomplete emptying or emptying at inappropriate times, constipation and loss of bowel control.
  • Sexuality and intimacy: impotence, diminished arousal and loss of sensation.
  • Pain: facial pain and muscle pains.
  • Sensitivity to heat: this often causes symptoms to get worse temporarily.

Though these are some of the symptoms commonly associated with MS, not all people with MS will experience all of them. Most will experience more than one symptom, however. There is no typical case of MS. Each is unique.

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Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

The initial symptom of MS is often blurred or double vision, red-green color distortion, or even blindness in one eye. Most MS patients experience muscle weakness in their extremities and difficulty with coordination and balance. These symptoms may be severe enough to impair walking or even standing. In the worst cases, MS can produce partial or complete paralysis. Most people with MS also exhibit paresthesias, transitory abnormal sensory feelings such as numbness, prickling or "pins and needles" sensations. Some may also experience pain. Speech impediments, tremors and dizziness are other frequent complaints. Occasionally, people with MS have hearing loss. Approximately half of all people with MS experience cognitive impairments such as difficulties with concentration, attention, memory and poor judgment, but such symptoms are usually mild and are frequently overlooked. Depression is another common feature of MS.

Possible symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis include:

  1. Loss of vision or double vision
  2. Muscle weakness or spasms
  3. Numbness or tingling of an arm or leg or one half of the body
  4. Electrical shock like sensations
  5. Unsteadiness when walking
  6. Loss of urinary control
  7. Sexual Dysfunction
  8. Fatigue
  9. Difficulty concentrating
  10. Depression

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.