Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a degenerative, neurological disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. An estimated 2,500,000 people globally have MS, with women afflicted almost three times more than men. Without any known cure, a diagnosis of MS can be terrifying. But the more we know and learn about the disease, the better we can spot its symptoms and seek professional care as soon as possible.
Without any known cure, a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) can be terrifying. But the more we know and learn about the disease, the better we can spot its symptoms and seek professional care as soon as possible. MS is a degenerative, neurological disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. An estimated 2,500,000 people globally have MS, with women afflicted almost three times more than men. MS is a lifelong condition that can range in intensity from mild to severe. In severe cases, it can result in disability.
The wide variety of symptoms associated with MS attests to the complexity of the condition. In fact, no two individuals with MS are the same and some may experience fewer symptoms than others.
Some classic early warning symptoms of MS include:
- Vision disturbances, including blurring, watery eyes, and pain. Optic neuritis is an inflammation of the optic nerve, which carries messages from the eye to the brain and vice-versa. This symptom is often overlooked as a sign of MS.
- Neurological symptoms such as numbness and tingling in the extremities, like in the palms and soles of the feet.
MS symptoms can be grouped into most common symptoms, less common symptoms, and secondary symptoms (the latter often leads to misdiagnosis).
The most common symptoms include:
- Fatigue: A general sense of tiredness and malaise that can hamper one’s daily functioning.
- Walking and balance (ataxia): People with MS often struggle to move and balance while walking; they can experience a sense that they’re falling.
- Weakness in the limbs: This can be due to deteriorating muscle tissues.
- Involuntary movements: These “athetoid” movements are very similar to those experienced by people with cerebral palsy.
- Dizziness and vertigo: This is the most common symptom and can often be mistaken for other underlying neurological conditions like epilepsy.
- Bladder and bowel control issues: MS affects the muscles in the bladder and sphincter.
- Sexual difficulties: Impaired muscle movement and coordination can impact the sexual organs in both men and women.
- Chronic pain: This can include pain that is neuropathic (a burning or pins-and-needles sensation) or musculoskeletal (dull pains in the back, neck, and limbs).
- Cognitive problems: MS often affects one’s ability to remember, learn, and focus.
- Psychosocial issues: Depression, for example, is common among those with MS.
While the common symptoms often lead to a diagnosis, it is important to also watch out for uncommon symptoms like:
- Hearing loss: A hearing problem will often be treated as a condition in itself, so its connection with MS can be overlooked.
- Headache: Dull and sharp headaches will often be misdiagnosed as sinusitis or migraines.
- Breathing difficulties: This can also be common, since MS weakens the lung and chest muscles.
- Tremors: These are often mistaken for early-onset Parkinson’s, but can be linked to MS as well.
- Speech issues: Slurring is often seen as a sign of a stroke, be it should also be checked as a symptom for MS.
- Seizures: People with MS experience frequent seizures due to abnormal electrical impulses in the brain, but this is often treated as epilepsy. Because of this, neurologists need to be cautious while treating epilepsy and explore the possibility of other underlying conditions as well.
- Swallowing difficulties: Dysphagia is caused by weakening muscles in the mouth and throat, and should be investigated as a symptom of a neurological disorder.]
Doctors will often treat secondary symptoms on their own without investigating their underlying causes. This can lead to a delay in diagnosis and, eventually, further complications. Some secondary symptoms associated with the onset of MS include frequent urinary tract infections (UTI) and incontinence due to weakened and damaged muscles in the area. Also, in some cases, shallow breathing and rasping (due to weakened muscles in the lungs and chest) can be the first sign of MS – though it is not directly related.
Ultimately, there is no gold standard test for MS. Most neurologists generally go by clinical diagnosis, looking for a cluster of related symptoms. Some of the tests in the MS panel include a cerebrospinal fluid analysis, an MRI of the brain, and an electroencephalogram (EEG).
Treatment of MS often focuses on rehabilitation, supportive therapy, muscle strengthening, and medications like steroids. Since there is no cure yet for MS, treatment can only modify the symptoms and prevent further muscle and neural degeneration and damage. In some clinical trials, interferon beta has produced positive effects in controlling and reducing neurological symptoms and degenerative loss. Fortunately, there is an increasing amount of promising research like this being done, giving more and more hope to MS patients.