Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition of the central nervous system that affects over 23,000 people in Australia, with unpredictable symptoms that can vary in intensity.
No two cases of MS are the same, and symptoms manifest in many different ways, depending on where MS lesions develop on the brain and spinal cord.
Symptoms vary, and come and go, making it hard to diagnose. You could have one symptom and then months or years later have a completely different one, not realising that the two are related.
In one study, people experienced an average of seven years between their first MS symptom and their diagnosis.
If you watch out for these warning signs, you may get diagnosed earlier and treated more quickly.
1. Vision loss
Visual problems are often the first symptoms associated with MS. More than half of people with MS will experience at least one issue with vision. Identifying this and seeking early treatment is key. With the right information and support, vision issues can be managed effectively to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. Inflammation affects the optic nerve and disrupts central vision. This can cause blurred vision, double vision or loss of vision. If you feel eye pain, experience double or blurred vision or visual field defects (where part of your vision is missing in different areas of your visual field), have ‘blind spots’ or if colours appear to have faded, talk to your GP.
Numbness of the face, the body or the extremities is one of the most common symptoms of MS, and is often the first symptom experienced by those eventually diagnosed with MS. The numbness may be mild or so severe that it interferes with the ability to use the affected body part. For example, a person with very numb feet may have difficulty walking. Numb hands may prevent writing, dressing or holding objects safely.
Chronic pain and involuntary muscle spasms are also common with MS. You might experience stiff muscles or joints as well as uncontrollable, painful jerking movements of the extremities. The legs are most often affected, but back pain is also common.
Occurring in about 80 per cent of people with MS, fatigue is one of the most common symptoms. It may be the most prominent symptom in a person who otherwise has minimal disease. One problem with fatigue as a symptom is that it is relatively common in both MS sufferers and non-MS sufferers. However, researchers are beginning to understand the characteristics of MS-related fatigue. These include factors where fatigue occurs on a daily basis; worsens as the day progresses; becomes aggravated by heat and humidity; and where fatigue manifests as sudden onset.
5. Continence problems
Many people with MS experience some form of bladder or bowel issues. Incontinence is the most common symptom for people with MS – the severity and longevity varies from person to person. It can include frequent urination, strong urges to urinate, or an inability to hold in urine.
6. Cognitive problems
About 50 per cent of people with MS will develop some degree of cognitive dysfunction. In MS, this generally means slowed ability to think, reason, concentrate or remember. But only 5 to 10 per cent of people with MS develop problems that are severe enough to significantly impact everyday activities. While cognitive dysfunction is more common among people who have had the disease for a long time, it can also be seen early in the disease course – even as the first symptom.
Depression is common in MS sufferers. Around half of people diagnosed will have a depressive episode – three times higher than for the general population. Many of the symptoms associated with depression such as fatigue, sleep or concentration issues are also symptoms of MS, which can make recognising depression even more difficult.
8. Swallowing problems
Chewing and swallowing involves the coordination of various muscles in the mouth and throat, including those that protect your windpipe when food and drink pass through your throat. Muscles can be weakened or the coordination of their movements disrupted by damage to the central nervous system caused by MS. This can also affect the way you sense the presence of food and drink in your mouth and throat. Nearly half of all people with MS experience swallowing difficulties.
For more information, visit msaustralia.org.au