Your chances of getting multiple sclerosis (MS) are relatively slim — only about 1 person in 1,000 develops it. But for those who do, this serious disease affects your central nervous system, disrupting communication between your brain and other parts of your body.
However, MS affects each person differently and can range from mild to severe, often making a diagnosis difficult to pin down.
“Not everyone with MS exhibits the same symptoms,” explains neurologist Robert Bermel, MD. “And there is no standard test to confirm an MS diagnosis.”
That said, certain symptoms should prompt you to seek help.
If you’re experiencing blurred vision, numbness, weakness or dizziness at the same time and for more than a day, those symptoms could be potential early signs of MS.
It’s important not to let too much time slip by before seeing a doctor. Because if you do have MS, getting treatment sooner rather than later can help you manage your symptoms better and may even slow the progression of the disease.
Dr. Bermel explains what early symptoms to watch out for.
What are the early signs of MS?
There are four potential early signs of MS that shouldn’t be ignored.
Painful vision loss in one eye
Vision problems can have many causes. But if you have painful vision loss or blurring in one eye that lasts for more than a couple of days, get it checked out.
“Patients describe it as ‘looking through smudged sunglasses’ on one side,” notes Dr. Bermel.
When one side of your face becomes temporarily paralyzed or appears to droop, it’s called facial paralysis or facial palsy. And it needs attention.
Persistent limb weakness or numbness
We’ve all experienced numbness or tingling in an arm or leg after sleeping in an awkward position or sitting the wrong way too long.
If the sensation eases over an hour or so, it’s probably nothing to worry about. But if it persists for more than a day or two, don’t ignore it.
Severe, ongoing dizziness
Dizziness has many causes, but MS-induced dizziness is typically more severe and lasts for at least two days.
“With MS, dizzy spells can cause you to have trouble walking down a hallway, for example, because your sense of equilibrium is so off,” explains Dr. Bermel.
Are symptoms caused by MS or something else?
“One of the things doctors look for with MS is that all these symptoms last more than a couple of days,” Dr. Bermel says.
In addition, the timing of symptoms — how quickly they appear — can help your doctor determine whether MS or something else is the cause.
For example, the early symptoms of MS are subacute, meaning they don’t come on as suddenly as stroke symptoms, and they don’t slowly worsen over time.
“MS is somewhere in the middle — the symptoms can worsen over hours or days,” he says.
At what age does MS usually start?
There are around nearly 1 million adults in the U.S. who are living with MS. The autoimmune disease affects women more than men.
And for most people, they’ll receive their MS diagnosis somewhere between the ages of 20 and 40.
“These are the years where the immune system is quite active, and factors like prior exposure to Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), the virus that causes mononucleosis, are increasingly thought to play a role,” says Dr. Bermel.
Other potential signs or symptoms
Only a small percentage of the many people who see doctors for numbness, tingling and musculoskeletal issues will actually have MS, notes Dr. Bermel.
So, they need to weigh the need for MS screening against concerns of unnecessarily alarming their patients.
But research shows that people use more medical care in the months leading up to an MS diagnosis. The visits are typically for nonspecific symptoms like:
- Musculoskeletal symptoms/sensations.
- Psychiatric symptoms.
- Bladder symptoms.
Researchers need to learn more before they can conclusively link these nonspecific symptoms to MS, though.
When it comes to MS, the earlier you can get a diagnosis the better. And because MS can be a tricky diagnosis to make, especially early, it’s important to rely on a neurologist who specializes in MS.
Treatment focuses on managing your symptoms, reducing any relapses and slowing MS’s progression. Options include disease-modifying therapies (DMTs), relapse management medications, physical rehabilitation and mental health counseling.
Lifestyle changes like eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and not smoking and limiting your alcohol intake can also help.
“We’re trying to identify those with MS as early as possible in the disease process because we know they will really benefit from early treatment,” says Dr. Bermel.