Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system, disrupting the transmission of nerve signals from the brain to the rest of the body. Symptoms can range from blurry vision to numbness to muscle weakness and spasms. Because symptoms can come and go, they’re often hard to pinpoint and may mimic other health issues, making it challenging for doctors to diagnose MS early on.
For most people with MS, their first brush with the disease starts with a single episode of symptoms that lasts 24 hours or less. During an attack, your immune system mistakenly attacks the myelin sheath that surrounds and protects nerve fibers in your brain and spinal cord. This process is called demyelination, and it leads to scar tissue — or lesions — in the affected area. These scars can block nerve signals from passing through the damaged area, causing a variety of early signs and symptoms.
Some common MS symptoms include eye movement problems like optic neuritis, numbness and weakness in the arms or legs, or trouble with balance or coordination (dysmetria). Fatigue, mood changes, and memory and word finding difficulties are also common. You may also experience a condition called brain fog, or difficulty thinking clearly. Muscle spasms, which occur in half of people with MS, are another symptom. They can be mild or strong and happen in the legs, arms, or back. They’re often triggered by pain or cold temperatures, and they can cause you to fall over or lose your balance when you move.
MS can affect how you feel, but it can also impact sexual and bowel functions, and even your ability to swallow or breathe. Women with MS may experience vaginal dryness, erection problems, or incontinence. Some men with MS experience constipation, diarrhea, or loss of bladder control. Bladder or bowel problems may also lead to other complications, such as infections and pneumonia.
If you’re experiencing one or more of these early signs, it’s important to talk with your neurologist. Your doctor will want to run tests to rule out other causes of the symptoms, such as a brain tumor or a pinched nerve. He or she may also want to get new MRIs, which can help identify damage caused by MS.
While you’re waiting for an MRI, your healthcare provider may recommend taking medication to reduce your chances of having an MS attack. This medication can help prevent an attack by slowing the speed at which your immune system attacks myelin sheaths. It also reduces the severity of an attack if you do have one. There are also several vaccines under investigation to prevent or reduce the recurrence of MS symptoms.