Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis and How They’re Treated

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People living with multiple sclerosis (MS) can experience a wide array of symptoms. On any given day, these can vary in type, severity and progression.  

Some people have only mild symptoms while others have debilitating ones that greatly impact their daily lives.

What Is Multiple Sclerosis?

MS is a chronic health condition that affects your central nervous system (CNS). Your CNS consists of your brain, spinal cord and optic nerves.

In the case of MS, your immune system attacks your myelin sheath. This is the layer that protects your nerves and helps transmit nerve impulses. 

This breakdown in myelin blocks or hinders transmission of the electrical impulses that travel along your nerves, thereby slowing down communication between your brain and body. 

Nerve damage also takes place. MS symptoms can differ, depending on which nerves are affected and how much nerve damage has been had.

What Are the Early Signs of MS?

In some people, early warning signs of MS may include the occurrence of:

Clinically Isolated Syndrome (CIS)

This is the first occurrence of neurological symptoms such as numbness and tingling in your legs. This may be the only time you’ll experience MS symptoms. For the disease to be diagnosed, you must have more than 1 episode of symptoms.

Optic Neuritis

This is when one or both optic nerves become inflamed. These nerves tell your brain what your eyes see. 

Your vision may be blurry or foggy and your perception of colors may seem less brilliant. Your eyes may also hurt when they move. These symptoms often improve after a few weeks to about a month.

What Are Some of the Common Symptoms of MS? 

As the disease progresses, early MS symptoms may return and new symptoms may develop. 

MS symptoms may include: 

  • Vision problems such as optic neuritis, diplopia (double vision), nystagmus (involuntary eye movement) or blindness
  • Problems walking due to vision problems, balance or gait issues, muscle weakness, stiffness, numbness or spasms
  • Dysarthria, a condition caused by brain lesions that produce symptoms such as slurred speech, changes in the volume of your speech and “scanning” or word-searching when you speak, which is marked by extended pauses between syllables and spoken words

You may also have:

  • Bladder or bowel problems
  • Cognitive issues such as problems with your memory, staying focused or problem-solving
  • Dysesthesia, also called MS hug because it causes a squeezing sensation around your torso
  • Pain or itching
  • Sexual problems
  • Sleep issues
  • Swallowing or chewing difficulty
  • Tremors

MS flare-ups (also called relapses or attacks) can last for days to months at a time followed by periods of remission when few or no symptoms occur.

Are MS Symptoms Different in Older Adults?

Late-onset MS (LOMS) is when the first signs and symptoms of the disease show up in older adults, often after age 50. LOMS symptoms tend to be the same as those that occur with regular onset MS with a few differences.

With LOMS:

  • Disability tends to progress faster.
  • Fewer flare-ups may occur.
  • Symptoms may occur more often.
  • Vision, sensory and motor problems are key symptoms.

What Are the Treatments for MS?

Although there isn’t a cure for MS at this time, there are many treatments that can help:

  • Ease symptoms and lessen the likelihood of them occurring
  • Decrease severity of flare-ups
  • Improve physical function

These include MS treatments such as:

  • Corticosteroids to help quell nerve inflammation caused by MS attacks.
  • Disease-modifying therapies to help reduce flare-ups by slowing down how fast the disease progresses and keeping new lesions from forming along your CNS.
  • Muscle relaxants to help ease muscle stiffness.
  • Medications to counter fatigue, depression, pain, and bladder and/or bowel control problems.
  • Plasma exchange to help relieve severe MS symptoms, especially when IV steroids fail to help. This process involves drawing your blood, separating your blood cells from your plasma and then mixing these cells with a protein solution that’s transfused back into your bloodstream.
  • Physical rehabilitation to help bolster your ability to function at home and work. These may include physical, speech and occupational therapy along with cognitive rehabilitation to help with thinking and perception and vocational rehabilitation to help with job skills, capabilities and workplace set-up.