Learn About Multiple Sclerosis

Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

Common symptoms of MS include fatigue, weakness, spasticity, balance problems, bladder and bowel problems, numbness, vision loss, tremors and depression.

Not all symptoms affect all MS patients. No two persons have the same complaints; no one develops all of the symptoms.

Symptoms may be persistent or may cease from time to time. Most patients have episodic patterns of attacks and remissions throughout the disease course. Symptoms may remit completely, leaving no residual damage, or partially leaving degrees of permanent impairment.

Because the symptoms that define the clinical picture of MS are the result of nerve lesions causing disturbances in electrical conduction in one or more areas of the CNS, the nature of the symptoms that occur is determined by the location of the lesion. For example: an optic nerve lesion may cause blurred vision; a brain stem lesion may cause dizziness or double vision; a spinal cord lesion may cause coordination/balance problems.

Depending on the location of the lesion, the MS patient may experience the following signs and symptoms:

Cerebrum and Cerebellum Balance problems, speech problems, coordination, tremors
Motor nerve
Muscle weakness, spasticity paralysis, vision problems, bladder, bowel problems
Sensory nerve tract Altered sensation, numbness, prickling, burning sensation

The following list of symptoms followed by typical courses of treatment, are not the only symptoms to affect those with MS. These symptoms may be intermittent or persistent. Not all of these symptoms affect all patients.

Fatigue: The most common complaint of MS patients is fatigue. Occurs in as many as 78 percent of patients, usually in the late afternoon and often subsides in the early evening.

  • Modifying activities, occupational therapy, and medications.

Numbness, Tingling, Burning Sensations: Sensory complaints occur in up to 55 percent of patients and are often the earliest symptoms of MS. Disturbances of feeling in the extremities or the trunk such as tingling, crawling sensations, feelings of swelling or numbness. Numbness also depends upon its cause. If severe neurological damage to the myelin sheath takes place, then numbness may remain.

  • Medication, exercise, healthy diet, body cooling, acupuncture, or pointed pressure therapy.

Tremors: Shaking or trembling of a limb or occasionally the head. Up to 50 percent report extremity ataxia (shaky movements or unsteady gait) or tremors. Tremors may come and go. This symptom of MS impairs mobility and often is associated with difficulty in balance and coordination.

  • Exercises, physical therapy, occupational therapy, adaptive equipment, and medications.

Balance/Coordination: Gait and balance disturbances are common with MS. Balance problems without vertigo may be more constant, causing the person to sway or stagger.

  • Exercises, physical therapy, occupational therapy.

Depression: As in most cases with the onset of an illness, depression is a frequent reaction. MS-related lethargy and fatigue may also be mistaken for depression or heighten its effects.

Spasticity: Occurs with the initial attack of MS in up to 41 percent of patients and is present in about 62 percent of patients with progressive disease. Occurs when opposing groups of muscles contract and relax at the same time. When spasticity is present, the increased stiffness in the muscles means that a great deal of energy is required to perform daily activities.

  • Exercise, stretching, physical therapy, mechanical aids, and medications.

Bladder: Increased frequency of urination, urgency, dribbling, hesitancy, and incontinence.

  • Modifying activities, catheterization, and medications.

Bowel: Constipation, diarrhea and incontinence. Dysfunction occurs in almost two thirds of patients during the disease course.

  • Diet management, adequate fluid intake, and medications.

Vision Loss: Rarely involves both eyes simultaneously, usually starts with blurred vision followed by vision loss from 20/20 to 20/30 to 20/40.

  • Medications, eye patch.

Cognitive and Emotional Dysfunction: Affects approximately 50 percent of MS patients. Involves memory, reasoning, verbal fluency and speed of information processing. Emotional changes include euphoria, depression. Memory problems are fairly common among people with MS. Memory and reasoning problems may affect between two thirds and three fourths of those diagnosed with MS to varying degrees.

  • Consider other issues that may lead to memory problems such as depression, other illnesses, and normal absent-mindedness. If memory loss is a constant problem, there are certain "mnemonic" exercises that may help or, consult a physician. Some treatments may be available to enhance cognitive functioning.

Sexual Difficulties: 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.

  • Good communication between partners, counseling, medications.

For further information on symptoms and symptom management, call our Program Services Department at 888-MSFOCUS (673-6287) or you can contact us by email: support@msfocus.org.

 (Last reviewed 7/2009)

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Unless otherwise specified, all medical content is compiled by MSF staff and reviewed for accuracy by a member of our Medical Advisory Board.

The MSF strives to present clear and unbiased information. This site is partially funded through a grant from Bayer Healthcare, LLC.

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