Nearly 1 million people in the U.S. and over 2.3 million worldwide suffer from multiple sclerosis (MS), according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS). The early signs of MS occur between the ages of 20 and 40 years old — which happen to be a person's prime working years — and are often pushed off as isolated issues.
So, what are the early and secondary signs of MS, and what should a person do if they are experiencing any of these issues?
The Early Signs of MS
Multiple sclerosis can be difficult to diagnose, as it shares common symptoms with many other conditions. Here are some of the early signs of MS as reported by NMSS:
- Muscle spasms
- Sexual dysfunction
- Hearing loss
- Tremors or shaking
- Swallowing or speech problems
These symptoms are a "direct result of damage to the myelin and nerve fibers in the central nervous system," says NMSS.
However, Cleveland Clinic says there are four particular symptoms that need to be addressed right away. If you experience persistent weakness or numbness in an arm or leg, severe dizziness that lasts two or more days, loss of vision or blurred vision in one eye or paralysis on one side of your face, it's time to see a doctor — now.
Secondary Symptoms Common With MS
Secondary symptoms occur as a result from the immediate, initial symptoms of any illness. For MS in particular, these may include: loss of muscle tone from inactivity, bowel and bladder problems caused by constipation or frequent urinary tract infections and worsening of cognitive and emotional issues. For example, if a person with MS is having a more difficult time concentrating or recalling answers to questions, their anxiety or depression could worsen.
What Is Clinically Isolated Syndrome?
As you research the early signs of MS, you may come across the phrase "clinically isolated syndrome" (CIS). What is CIS and how does it relate to MS?
According to NMSS, "CIS refers to a first episode of neurological symptoms that lasts at least 24 hours and is caused by inflammation or demyelination (loss of the myelin that covers the nerve cells) in the central nervous system (CNS)."
There are two types of CIS. A monofocal episode occurs when an individual has one neurological symptom caused by a single lesion. A multifocal episode includes multiple symptoms and is often due to more than one lesion, potentially in more than one place.
What differentiates CIS and MS is that individuals who experience CIS usually recover fully — or at least partially — but there is no recovery for MS, just treatment.
MRI testing at the time of the first CIS episode, along with a study of symptoms, allows a doctor to determine whether the patient has a low or high risk of developing MS.
How MS Is Treated
While there is currently no cure for MS, there are treatment methods to help slow the progression of the disease. Treatments can help manage symptoms and make recovery from flare ups as quick as possible.
Mayo Clinic reports that corticosteroids are often prescribed to decrease nerve inflammation. Plasmapheresis is another option if corticosteriods aren't working.
If you think you exhibit early signs of MS, it's vital to make an appointment with your primary care doctor. They will help identify if these symptoms could be related to anything else. If not, they will refer you to a neurologist for further testing. If diagnosed, your neurologist will be able to explain how MS is treated, as different people will have different treatment plans.
It's important to lean on your support team during the initial testing and diagnosis period. Your loved ones want to be there for you, so don't hesitate to ask!