A Closer Look at Common and Uncommon Signs of MS Disease Activity
By: Nurse Kim
When you’re living with multiple sclerosis, understanding what symptoms you may experience plays a key role in your care. Symptoms are signs that MS is active in your body and when your healthcare provider is aware of all the symptoms you’re experiencing, he or she can take the appropriate steps to manage MS.
By familiarizing yourself with MS symptoms, you’ll be able to better identify them and bring them to the attention of your healthcare team. Let’s take a closer look at some common signs of disease activity, and then look at some not-so-common ones.
Below are some of the more common symptoms reported by people living with MS.
- Bladder or bowel problems are experienced by about 80% of people living with MS. These problems may include incontinence, constipation, and loss of bowel control.1,2
- Cognitive changes occur in more than 50% of people living with MS, and may include learning and memory difficulties and problems with concentration, focus, and judgment.3 Many people report having trouble organizing their thoughts and being able to solve problems.4
- Dizziness or vertigo is another common symptom of MS and is often experienced as lightheadedness, feeling off-balance, or feeling like the room is spinning.5
- Emotional changes may occur and can manifest as clinical depression, mood swings, irritability, and uncontrolled laughing or crying.6-8
- Fatigue, which is the feeling of being tired all day, or tiring easily after physical or mental activity, occurs in about 80% of people living with MS.8
- Numbness and/or tingling, usually experienced as a prickling or “pins and needles” feeling, can occur in the face, torso, arms, and legs. It is often one of the first symptoms experienced by many people living with MS.8
- Chronic pain, which may include headaches, muscle pain, back pain, or musculoskeletal pain, is experienced by more than half of people living with MS.9
- Sexual problems, like erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, and the inability to orgasm,10 can often occur. There are a number of possible causes for sexual impairments, such as damage to the central nervous system, fatigue, or psychological factors.10
- Spasticity, which is involuntary muscle spasms and stiffness that commonly occurs, particularly in the legs.8
- Vision problems such as blurred vision, poor color contrast, and painful eye movement, are one of the first symptoms experienced by those living with MS.8
- Walking/gait difficulty can be caused by interconnected factors including muscle weakness, stiffness, or muscle spasms, poor balance, sensory deficits, and fatigue.8
- Weakness from muscle deterioration is often caused by damage to the nerves that stimulate the muscles.8
The following symptoms are reported less often by people living with MS.
- Breathing problems, such as decreased lung function, difficulty with full exhales and productive coughs, and sleep apnea, are less common but have been reported by people living with MS.9-11
- Hearing loss affects approximately 6% of people living with MS and often occurs as intermittent hearing impairment.12
- Itching, especially a sudden, severe itchiness that is neurologic in origin, can be a less common symptom of MS.13
- Seizures, including epileptic seizures, affect about 2% to 5% of people living with MS.14
- Speech and swallowing problems, which may include slurred speech (dysarthria), hoarseness of voice, and swallowing difficulties (dysphagia),15-16 often go hand in hand because they involve the same group of muscles.
- Tremors, an uncontrollable shaking that can be triggered by movement, may affect various parts of the body of people living with MS.17
Remember that everyone living with multiple sclerosis experiences it differently, so tracking your specific symptoms is one of the best ways to help you and your healthcare provider manage MS.
You know your body best, so it’s important to communicate when you feel like something’s not right. You may not think your symptoms are a big deal, but if something is feeling off—even if it’s not listed above—speak with your healthcare provider. If you’re experiencing MS symptoms, it may be time for you and your healthcare provider to explore another multiple sclerosis treatment that’s a better fit for you.
- If you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s a sign that MS is still active in your body.18
- Knowing the common and uncommon signs of MS activity is an important step to managing MS.
- It’s important to report any and all symptoms to your healthcare team.
References: 1. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Bladder problems. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms/Bladder-Dysfunction. Accessed May 19, 2018. 2. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Bowel problems. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms/Bowel-Problems. Accessed May 19, 2018. 3. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Cognitive changes. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms/Cognitive-Changes. Accessed May 19, 2018. 4. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Cognitive health. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Living-Well-With-MS/Cognitive-Health. Accessed May 19, 2018. 5. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Dizziness and vertigo. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms/Dizziness-and-Vertigo. Accessed May 19, 2018. 6. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Mood changes. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Living-Well-With-MS/Emotional-Well-Being/Mood-Changes. Accessed May 19, 2018. 7. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Clinical bulletin. Pseudobulbar affect. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/NationalMSSociety/media/MSNationalFiles/Brochures/Clinical-Bulletin-Pseudobulbar.pdf. Accessed May 19, 2018. 8. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. MS symptoms. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms. Accessed May 19, 2018. 9. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Breathing problems. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms/Respiration-Breathing-Problems. Accessed May 19, 2018. 10. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Sleep. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Living-Well-With-MS/Diet-Exercise-Healthy-Behaviors/Sleep. Accessed May 19, 2018. 11. Tzelepis GE, McCool FD. Respiratory dysfunction in multiple sclerosis. Respir Med. 2015;109:671-679. doi: 10.1016/j.rmed.2015.01.018. 12. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Hearing loss. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms/Hearing-Loss. Accessed May 19, 2018. 13. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Itching. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms/Itching. Accessed May 19, 2018. 14. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Seizures. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms/Seizures. Accessed May 19, 2018. 15. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Speech problems. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms/Speech-Disorders. Accessed May 21, 2018. 16. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Swallowing disorders. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Swallowing-Disorders-Information-Page. Accessed May 19, 2018. 17. National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Multiple sclerosis: hope through research. 2017. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Hope-Through-Research/Multiple-Sclerosis-Hope-Through-Research. Accessed April 18, 2018. 18. Giovannoni G, Butzkueven H, Dhib-Jalbut S, et al. Brain health: time matters in multiple sclerosis. Mult Scler Relat Disord. 2016;9(Suppl 1):S5-S48.