Early symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) vary and can range from numbness and tingling to vision problems, loss of mobility, and paralysis.

MS is a relapsing or progressive disease of the central nervous system (CNS). 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.

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

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The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that vision problems are often the first symptom of MS. Inflammation and demyelination disrupt 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.

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 barely detectable to start with and worsen over time.

Learn more about fatigue and MS.

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 noticeable. However, this can become painful over time. Most of the time, these symptoms are not disabling initially.

Symptoms can come and go in periods of exacerbation, when they worsen, and remission, when they lessen in severity but do not resolve completely.

Learn about MS tingling patterns.

Up to two-thirds of people with MS worldwide report experiencing related pain.

Examples of short-term pain include:

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

  • feeling off balance
  • frequent falls
  • near-falls, such as tripping
  • a feeling of falling toward one side or the other

These symptoms can cause people to lose their balance, fall, or find it difficult 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:

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

Learn more about bowel issues and MS.

Sexual arousal begins in the CNS when the brain sends messages to the sex 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.

Read about dating a person with MS.

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

  • difficulty finding words
  • memory loss
  • difficulty with the speed of processing information

Less common symptoms that affect people with MS include:

MS is an autoimmune disease that damages the CNS. 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 aged between 20 and 40 years. However, it can occur at any age.
  • Sex: The condition affects three times as many women as men, according to the 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 an abnormal immune reaction to the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes infectious mononucleosis.
  • Geographic region: MS is more common in temperate climates than in sunny regions. Within the U.S., the condition is more common in northern states.
  • Race: MS can affect people of any background. Recent research indicates the incidence of MS among Black people is consistent with the rate among white people.

Anyone with early symptoms of MS should consult a doctor without delay. Damage to the CNS can occur 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 medication can help alleviate symptoms such as pain, fatigue, and bladder problems.

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

Early signs include vision changes, numbness and tingling, and weakness. However, people may experience these symptoms at any point, or they may recur throughout the course of the disease.

Some MS effects, such as muscle spasms, chronic pain, and emotional disturbances, only occur later.

Anyone concerned about symptoms that may indicate MS should talk with their doctor. The sooner a person starts treatment, the more effective it will likely be.

Read this article in Spanish.