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Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms

10 Early Signs of Multiple Sclerosis

By , Caring.com senior editor
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Like other autoimmune diseases, multiple sclerosis (MS) occurs when your immune system mysteriously goes into overdrive and attacks the body itself, in this case the nerve fibers that run through the brain and spinal cord.

MS begins at a younger age and is much more common than most people realize; more than 350,000 people in the U.S. live with the condition, most of them diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40. Women are three times more likely to get MS than men, but, oddly, it hasn't always been this way -- until some 20 years ago, men and women got MS in about equal numbers.

It can take a long time for your doctor to figure out that you have MS because the symptoms, taken one by one, can be explained by so many other conditions. Use this list of 10 early signs to get diagnosed faster and start treatment earlier.

Why Your Vision and Eye Issues Could Be an Early Sign of MS

MS can cause a host of mysterious vision problems when it attacks and inflames the optic nerves or confuses signals between the brain and the eyes.

What you might notice:
Your eyes might hurt, either all the time or just when you move them. This may happen with both eyes, but it's most likely to affect just one eye at a time. You might have double vision or blurry vision, or notice that things look dim or colors are off. Another warning sign is uncontrollable eye movements, particularly when you look to the side.

What to do:
Make an appointment with an ophthalmologist to rule out other causes of vision problems and eye pain. If your eye health checks out, ask your doctor for more tests.

Why Your Balance Problems Could Be an Early Sign of MS

Multiple sclerosis disrupts signals between the brain and the spinal cord as well as other parts of the body. It can also lead to benign positional vertigo (BPV), an inner ear problem that causes vertigo.

What you might notice:
You tip over doing Tree Pose in yoga class when you never had a problem before, or you get off-kilter during aerobics or dance classes. You might notice feeling unbalanced when stepping over an obstacle or off a curb, or you might feel dizzy when you first move from lying or sitting to standing.

What to do:
Note which activities have become more difficult, and how often. Keep track of when and where you notice problems doing things you've had no trouble doing in the past.

Why Feeling Tingly Could Be an Early Sign of MS

This is the most common, classic sign of MS -- yet it's easily missed. That's because a number of conditions, from restless leg syndrome to diabetic neuropathy, can cause the same issues.

What you might notice:
A tickly, prickly, or crawly feeling, much like the pins and needles you get when your feet fall asleep, except that it moves up your legs and arms. Or numbness, as when your foot falls asleep and you can't feel it.

What to do:
Each time you experience the tingling or numbness, notice whether you've recently done something to cut off the circulation -- or if there's no logical cause to account for the problem. Pay attention to whether you feel the prickliness just at night (which could be restless leg syndrome) or during the daytime as well.

Why Suddenly Feeling Hot or Cold Could Be an Early Sign of MS

Disrupted nerve signals can cause confused sensations, such as suddenly feeling extremely cold or hot when there isn't any logical reason for it.

What you might notice:
Sudden extremes of cold and heat, as if you'd dipped your feet in a cold stream or held your hands over a fire. Unlike a normal chill or hot flash, which you might feel all over, this temperature change is most likely to originate in your feet or hands and move up toward your torso.

What to do:
If you're a woman in the premenopausal years, you'll need to distinguish between these temperature issues and hormonal ones by keeping track of where in the body they occur. For others, it's more straightforward to explain the strange sensations.

Why Constipation Could Be an Early Sign of MS

If you already had problems with slow digestion, then this sign probably won't be on your radar. But if you've been regular in the past, then this could be a sign that something's changed.

What you might notice:

Less frequent and longer trips to the bathroom. You also might gain weight or feel bloated.

What to do:

A change in diet, low thyroid, frequent use of painkillers, and lots of other issues can cause constipation, so you'll need to look for other causes before you worry about this one. If you're having other symptoms, though, add this one to the list.

Confusing Symptoms Could Be an Early Sign of MS

Another way that MS eludes easy diagnosis is that your symptoms may switch around in a highly confusing way.

What you might notice:
A worrying episode of stiffness or tremors vanishes, only to be followed by a bout of constipation, which resolves itself just as you begin having vision problems. At first you might feel like you're just having one health problem after another, but eventually you start to wonder if something bigger is going on. "I knew something was going on -- I just never felt 'right,' because something was always off" is a common description from those diagnosed with MS.

What to do:
Any cluster of unexplained symptoms -- no matter how seemingly unrelated -- is important to bring to your doctor's attention.

Why Trembling Hands Could Be an Early Sign of MS

MS can affect your muscles in many, often mysterious, ways. Weakness is common, and so are spasms, when your muscles cramp or tighten up unexpectedly.

What you might notice:
Precise hand movements, like buttoning your shirt or using tweezers, are difficult. Your hands may feel stiff or tremble just as you try to pick things up, or you might feel clumsy doing things you're normally adept at.

What to do:
If weakness or stiffness don't resolve in a few weeks, talk to your doctor, who will need to rule out arthritis and other possible explanations. Because muscle spasms can be a sign of several serious conditions, including both MS and Parkinson's, they should always be reported to your doctor.

Why Fuzzy Thinking Could Be an Early Sign of MS

Cognitive impairment is one of the earliest signs of MS, but often people recognize it only in retrospect, after they're diagnosed based on other symptoms.

What you might notice:
You just can't concentrate like you used to. You're easily distracted, lose track of a task when you're right in the middle of it, and facts and words slip from your memory more easily than usual. Of course, if these sound familiar, that's because they're also signs of normal, age-related memory decline.

What to do:
Tell your doctor you're noticing cognitive issues, particularly if you're between 20 and 40, the typical age of onset for MS. (Age-related memory issues don't usually crop up this early.)

Why Disappearing Symptoms Could Be an Early Sign of MS

Even though MS is a chronic disease, it doesn't follow a steady progression, as most other chronic diseases do. Instead, in most people MS goes into remission for long periods of time, then symptoms reappear, giving it the name "relapsing remitting" multiple sclerosis.

What you might notice:
You feel confused and frustrated because, just when you seriously begin to worry about a symptom, it disappears. For example, you might notice that you're having balance problems and decide to ask your doctor about it -- and then three days before your appointment, your balance is fine.

What to do:
Keep a record of what you notice, how long it lasts, and any activities that seem to make it worse. Pay attention to whether the signs occur when you're feeling healthy and well rested or only when you're sleep deprived or stressed. Bring this log to the doctor and go through it item by item, describing what you're experiencing as clearly as you can and explaining how it's different from your normal experience.

Why Feeling Tired All the Time Could Be an Early Sign of MS

Feeling weak and weary is one of the most common signs of MS, but it's also one of the hardest to use for diagnosis, since fatigue is a sign of so many illnesses. Many MS patients believed they had chronic fatigue syndrome until they began to experience other symptoms.

What you might notice:
Exhaustion that comes on suddenly and is completely overwhelming. It might be hard to get out of bed, or you might feel physically exhausted, like you've "been run over by a truck." Most specifically, your arms and legs might feel heavy and clumsy, like you're walking uphill when on flat ground, or like you're lifting weights when your hands are empty.

What to do:
Explain to your doctor that this isn't normal, everyday fatigue. Also explain that it comes on suddenly, and give specific examples of times when fatigue and weakness prevented you from engaging in your usual daily activities.