Multiple sclerosis is a progressive disease of the central nervous system. It occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the healthy nerves of the brain and spinal cord.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), the disease affects nearly 1 million adults in the United States.

Most people with MS experience their first symptoms in their 20s or 30s.

The symptoms of MS vary widely and can range from mild to debilitating. It can cause numbness, tingling, vision problems, loss of mobility, and paralysis.

Although there is no cure for MS, treatment can help prevent more symptoms and slow its progression.

Early intervention offers the best chance at preventing long-term disability. Therefore, it is crucial to recognize the initial symptoms of MS and seek prompt medical attention. Read on to learn more.

Share on Pinterest
PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/Getty Images

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that vision problems are often the first symptom of MS. Inflammation disrupts the vision when it affects the optic nerves.

Possible vision changes include:

  • blurred vision
  • double vision
  • red color distortion
  • loss of vision
  • pain with eye movement when looking up or to the side

Learn more about how MS can affect vision here.

Most people with MS experience fatigue and weakness. Nerve damage in the spine and brain results in long-term, or chronic, fatigue.

Weakness most commonly affects one extremity at a time before affecting other body parts. The symptom may be very bothersome for several days to a few weeks or start barely detectable and worsen over time.

Learn more about fatigue and MS here.

Tingling and numbness are other common early warning signs of MS. These symptoms most often occur in the:

  • arms
  • face
  • hands
  • legs

Initially, the numbness and tingling may be very notable. However, they can become painful over time. Most of the time, these symptoms are not disabling initially and will come and go with worsening intensity during periods of increased stress.

Learn about MS tingling patterns here.

Up to two-thirds of people with MS worldwide report experiencing related pain. A person may experience short- or long-term pain.

Examples of short-term pain include:

Chronic pain causes burning, aching, or “pins and needles” sensations. Muscle spasms — sharp, jerking movements of the legs and arms — are also common.

Dizziness and balance problems affect many people with MS. They may experience:

  • feeling off balance
  • frequent falls
  • near-falls such as tripping
  • feeling of falling towards one side of the other

These symptoms can cause people to lose their balance, fall, or struggle to walk.

Less commonly, people with MS experience vertigo, which is the sensation that the surroundings are spinning.

The majority of people with MS experience some degree of bladder dysfunction. Bladder issues occur when lesions affect nerve signals that control the bladder and urinary function.

Symptoms typically include:

  • increased urinary frequency
  • urinary urgency
  • difficulty starting urination
  • night-time urination
  • incontinence
  • difficulty completely emptying the bladder

Bowel issues are also common in people with MS. Most experience constipation or loss of bowel control.

Learn more about bowel issues and MS here.

Sexual arousal begins in the central nervous system when the brain sends messages to the sexual organs.

Damage to these nerves causes some people with MS to notice changes in their levels of sexual desire, sexual activity, and ability to orgasm.

Other symptoms of MS, such as fatigue and pain, may also reduce sexual desire.

Learn about dating a person with MS here.

Approximately half of all people with MS will notice cognitive changes that cause:

  • word finding difficulty
  • memory loss
  • speed of information processing

Emotional health problems are also common, including depression, stress, and anxiety. These issues can arise as people manage their symptoms and other impacts of MS on their lives.

Other symptoms that affect people with MS include:

MS is an autoimmune disease that damages the central nervous system. The exact cause is not clear. However, genetic and environmental factors likely play a role in its onset.

Factors that increase the risk of developing MS include:

  • Age: MS most commonly appears in people between 20 and 40 years old. However, it can occur at any age.
  • Sex: The condition affects three times as many women as men, according to NMSS.
  • Family history: A person who has a family member with MS may have a higher chance of developing it.
  • Infection: Several viruses may increase the risk of MS, including early exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes infectious mononucleosis.
  • Geographic region: MS is more common in temperate climates than sunny regions. Within the U.S., the condition is more common in Northern states.
  • Race: MS can affect people of any background. It is most common among white people. However, recent figures suggest it may be more common among Black females than previously thought.

Anyone with early symptoms of MS should consult a doctor without delay. Damage to the central nervous system can occur even before a person experiences symptoms.

Early diagnosis and treatment can provide the best chance of preventing disability.

Many treatments can help slow the progression of MS, and symptomatic medication can help alleviate symptoms such as pain, fatigue, and bladder problems.

The signs of MS can vary widely. Most people who develop MS start to have symptoms when they are in their 20s or 30s.

Early signs include vision changes, numbness and tingling, and weakness. However, these can also be signs of other health conditions.

Anyone who has concerns about symptoms that may indicate MS should talk with their doctor. The sooner a person starts treatment, the more effective it is likely to be.

Read this article in Spanish.