Symptoms of MS

What causes MS symptoms?

Imagine you run a delivery service in a busy city. Each time you receive a package, you assign it to a driver to deliver. Along some drivers' routes, there may be potholes or detours that slow them down. They may deliver the packages eventually, but not at the speed you would have liked. Another driver may find his way completely blocked and be unable to deliver their package. You, however, have no control over the road damage or dead-ends along their routes, nor can you predict where they will be.

This illustrates MS and its symptoms. Your nervous system is like a network of "roads" running to every part of your body. Your brain uses these "roads" to sends "packages" – nerve signals that instruct the body what to do – throughout your body every second of the day. But due to the "road damage" caused by MS, some signals will be slowed down, and some may not get delivered at all. 

What kind of symptoms can MS cause?

Because this network of nerves delivers instructions throughout your system, MS can affect you in dozens of different ways. The symptoms can affect your senses, mind, and body.

Your senses
Double vision, blurred vision, partial vision loss
Central auditory processing impairment
Diminished sense of smell
Diminished or altered sense of taste
Numbness, tingling, burning sensations, itching
Your mind
Impaired short-term memory or concentration, slower processing of information
Depression, personality changes, inappropriate laughing or crying
Your body
Facial pain (neuralgias), partial paralysis (Bell's palsy), headaches, speech changes
Muscle spasms, squeezing sensation ("MS hug"), foot drop, swallowing difficulties
Vertigo, dizziness, balance changes
Incontinence, constipation, urinary retention
Nervous System
Tremor, weakness, fatigue, heat sensitivity, seizures
Erectile dysfunction, diminished sensation, decreased desire

Unfortunately, since MS damage is unpredictable, it is impossible to determine what symptoms you will have and how severe any of them will be. However, just as a delivery service can pay attention to which roads are more likely to have damage from heavy traffic, you can learn which symptoms are the most common for people with MS and be prepared to deal with them should they arise.

Common symptoms explained

A feeling of exhaustion that is not caused by lack of sleep or overexertion, and may not improve with rest. Fatigue is the most common and persistent symptom of MS, affecting nearly 80 percent of those with MS.

Treated by: Modifying activities, occupational therapy, and medications.

Up to 55 percent of people with MS experience these altered sensations, including numbness, tingling (a 'pins and needles' feeling), burning, or sensitivity to touch. These sensations are often the earliest symptoms of MS.

Treated by: Medication, exercise, healthy diet, body cooling,  or acupuncture.

Impaired coordination
Difficulties with balance and a person's manner of walking (gait) are common with MS. Balance problems may cause a person to sway or stagger. Gait impairment may make it difficult to lift the foot or leg.

Treated by: Exercises, physical therapy, occupational therapy.

Shaking or trembling of a limb, or occasionally the head. Up to 50 percent report extremity ataxia (shaky movements or unsteady gait) or tremors. 

Treated by: Exercise, physical therapy, occupational therapy, adaptive equipment, and medications.

In MS, depression is common both as a symptom of the disease itself, and as a common reaction to the onset of a chronic illness.

Treated by: Medications, counseling, and complementary alternative treatments.

Affecting up to 60 percent of people diagnosed, this often painful symptom occurs when opposing groups of muscles contract and relax at the same time.

Treated by: Exercise, stretching, physical therapy, mechanical aids, and medications.

Bladder dysfunction
Signs of bladder dysfunction can include frequent urination, urgency, dribbling, and incontinence. Conversely, it can also include hesitancy or urinary retention.

Treated by: Modifying activities, medications, catheterization.

Bowel dysfunction
About two-thirds of people with MS experience bowel dysfunction, most frequently constipation, but  diarrhea and incontinence can also occur. 

Treated by: Diet management, adequate fluid intake, and medications.

Optic neuritis
While it rarely affects both eyes simultaneously, optic neuritis is a common symptom that can cause blurred vision, double vision, or vision loss. Vision often returns, at least to some degree. 

Treated by: Medications, eye patch.

Cognitive dysfunction
Changes in cognition (thinking ability) typically affect short-term memory, verbal fluency, and speed of information processing. Memory and reasoning problems may affect between two-thirds and three-fourths of those diagnosed with MS to varying degrees.

Treated by: Occupational therapy, cognitive rehabilitation, medications

Sexual Dysfunction
More than 90 percent of men and 70 percent of women with MS report some change in their sexual life after the onset of the disease. Some problems include decreased sexual drive, impaired sensation, diminished orgasmic response, and loss of sexual interest.

Treated by: Counseling, medications.

Proactive symptom management

These are only a few of the dozens of symptoms that MS can present. While they are the most commonly reported symptoms, not every person with MS is guaranteed to experience them. Some individuals may experience many symptoms associated with the disease, others only a few. And the severity of symptoms varies from person to person as well, ranging from mildly bothersome to life-altering. With such an unpredictable condition, what can you do to manage your symptoms? Quite a lot.

  • Slow MS down by starting a disease-modifying treatment and sticking to your dosing schedule.
  • Consider healthy sleep, exercise, and diet habits as an important part of your treatment routine. 
  • Bring up new or worsening symptoms with your doctor as early as possible, and follow through with treatment recommendations.
  • Reach out for social support. Join a support group or open up to trusted friends.

These common sense steps have been shown time and again to improve outcomes, either by decreasing your chance of relapses and new symptoms, or by giving you the resilience to recover or adapt.

For more on managing symptoms, visit our MS Focus Magazine Symptom Management archive.