Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, is a debilitating illness that impacts the brain and spinal cord. This autoimmune disease attacks the protective covering around the nerves known as the myelin sheath, which impacts the normal functions of the central nervous system. It also leaves scars, or lesions, behind as a result of the damage.
Therefore, messages sent between the brain and the rest of the body through the nerves do not work effectively, causing difficulty with mobility, cognitive performance, and organ function.
Although MS affects the nerves and leaves lesions on the brain in every individual with the disease, the symptoms can fluctuate widely among those diagnosed. The first symptoms that one experiences with MS can vary from person to person, and the disease progresses differently in every individual. These are some of the most commonly reported symptoms of MS according to the body system impacted.
Among the most common symptoms experienced by those with MS are those that affect their mobility. This includes issues with the nerves and muscles, as the messages sent from the brain to the limbs via the nervous system are misfiring. These are often some of the first clues that someone has that they need to be evaluated by a doctor.
One of the most frequently experienced symptoms, especially early on, is weakness or numbness in the extremities. This typically affects one side of the body, and is most present in the lower body and torso. It might feel like a pins and needles sensation, or the area might lose feeling altogether. The limbs also may tire more quickly than usual, or may not feel strong enough to get through the typical daily movements.
Along with weakness in the limbs, involuntary movements or a decrease in precise mobility is typical for those with MS. Tremors are common as the nerves misfire without the full protection of the myelin sheath. The muscle weakness might also cause someone to appear clumsy or uncoordinated as they are unable to have full control over their movements, and their gait may be affected as well.
An unusual level of tiredness is another hallmark symptom for most people with MS. It is often described as every part of the body feeling weighted down and difficult to move. While general fatigue can certainly be experienced secondary to the effects off the disease, the tiredness that accompanies MS is very specific and referred to as lassitude. More severe than general fatigue, and is not improved by enough rest at night or taking it easy. Lassitude tends to be a persistent daily fatigue worsened by activity, heat and humidity, and can make it very difficult to complete normal daily activities.
Due to the number of nerves wired throughout the brain, it is no suprise that the brain is also greatly impacted by MS. As the disease progresses, it also scars the brain tissue. These lesions dimish the function of many different parts of the brain, as well as the way that it communicates with the rest of the body.
Many people with MS experience brain fog, a difficulty with thinking clearly and processing information efficiently. This can be the first symptom that people notice, though it may be most prevalent for some as the disease progresses. Attention, focus, short-term memory, and executive functioning can all be impacted by MS. Most people only have difficulty in one or two of these areas, though some report an effect in more.
The way the people retrieve words and engage in normal speech patterns can both be affected in someone with MS. The ability to find a word or name in the moment of conversation or writing can be challenging. Some people also develop slurred speech, a nasal voice, volume issues, and an abnormal cadence that leaves long pauses in their phrasing. These issues can be frustrating, though speech language therapy and assistive communication devices can help.
Another common symptom of MS is vertigo. The lightheadedness and dizziness are caused by lesions on the parts of the brain that work together to control balance. With vertigo, it can feel like the room is spinning, which makes it difficult to engage in normal daily activities. Drugs used to treat motion sickness are very effective for helping manage this symptom.
For some people with MS, the disease impacts other parts of the body as well. The function of several organs in the body are frequently impacted for individuals with MS. While not all people will experience these symptoms, some may occur even before motor symptoms and can have a big impact on the ability to work and everyday tasks.
For many people, vision issues are actually the first indication that something is wrong. Optic neuritis, an inflammation in the nerve that serves the eye, can cause blurred or dim vision, loss of color perception, and even the inability to see. These issues typically affect one eye at a time and are able to be reversed or rehabilitated. These issues are likely to be more prevalent when an individual with MS is overtired or overheated and diminished once they have gotten some rest or cooled down.
Other organs that are impacted by MS are the bladder and the bowels. Lesions to the areas of the brain that control the muscles for these organs can make them function abnormally. Difficulty going to the bathroom, incontinence, and nighttime urination are all common symptoms for the bladder, while constipation or diarrhea are frequent concerns for bowel involvement.
While not a direct symptom of MS, changes in mental health are very typical for those with the disease. The symptoms listed above can have a profound impact on quality of life and independence, which can cause some with MS to feel depressed or experience emotional changes. It is important to monitor and share these feelings in addition to other symptoms when seeking the support and care of a physician.