Multiple Sclerosis - Symptoms

Multiple sclerosis can develop in one of three patterns. The most common pattern is called "relapsing-remitting." In this pattern, symptoms appear and then disappear. A person may feel fine for a while and then experience the symptoms of MS for a period of twenty-four hours or more. Then the symptoms disappear again for a span of time. That span may be as long as a year or more at the beginning of the disease. But the span grows shorter as the person becomes older. This pattern is especially common in younger people with MS.

"Primary progressive" is a second pattern. In this pattern, the disease simply gets worse over time. A person may have brief periods when the disease does not get worse, but these are rare. The primary progressive pattern is more common in older people.

The "secondary progressive" pattern is a combination of the first two patterns. A patient first goes through a period of relapsing and remitting. Eventually, however, the disease just continues to get worse, as in the primary progressive pattern.

Between 10 percent and 20 percent of MS patients have a benign form of MS. Benign means that the symptoms do not change very much throughout a person's life.

The actual symptoms of MS vary considerably from person to person. The reason for this is that plaques form in different places and at different times in different individuals. Some initial symptoms of the disease include:

  • Muscle weakness, causing difficulty in walking
  • Loss of coordination or balance
  • Numbness, feelings of "pins and needles," or other abnormal sensations
  • Problems with vision, including blurred or double vision

As the disease develops, other symptoms may appear. These include:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Tremors (shaking)
  • Paralysis
  • Pain
  • Vertigo (dizziness, light-headedness)
  • Difficulty with speech and/or swallowing
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Constipation
  • Sexual problems
  • Changes in one's ability to think clearly

Weakness in one or both legs is common. It is often the first symptom noticed by a person with MS. Excessive tightness of muscles is also common. It may actually cause more problems than muscular weakness.

Damage to myelin in the optical (eye) nerves can cause visual problems, such as blurred vision, changes in color vision, and even blindness. The condition may affect one or both eyes.

More than half of all people with MS have pain during the course of their disease. Many experience pain nearly all the time, often because of muscle spasticity (stiffness). The pain is often a sharp, stabbing pain, especially in the face, neck, or back. Numbness and weakness in the face are also common.

Some mental changes that can occur include loss of memory, depression, and personality changes. Some of these changes may result from damage to neurons. Others may be a side effect caused by the patient's despair about the disease. In less common cases, a person with MS may actually feel happier than usual.

The symptoms of MS can be affected by environmental conditions. Heat; increased body temperature; vigorous physical activity; or exposure to sun, hot baths, or showers can make symptoms worse.

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