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Conditions That Can Seem Like MS

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on January 08, 2021

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a long-lasting disease that affects the nerves in your brain and spinal cord. It's often hard to diagnose because symptoms vary so much from person to person. They can be mild or serious. They may come and go, or they may get worse over time.

Also, many other conditions have symptoms similar to those of MS. They include:

Your doctor will need to rule out these other conditions before diagnosing you with MS.

Epstein-Barr Virus

One condition that can also cause long-lasting fatigue is the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). It's a common type of herpes virus usually spread through body fluids, like spit. It's probably best known for causing mononucleosis, or "mono." Most people will get Epstein-Barr sometime during their lives.

Along with fatigue, EBV symptoms include:

EBV often infects children, who usually have mild or no symptoms. Teenagers and adults may show more clear signs of EBV. Most symptoms tend to clear up in 2-4 weeks, but the fatigue may last for many weeks or months. Once you have this virus, it stays in your body. It can reactivate, and it may or may not cause symptoms.

Vitamin B12 Deficiency

If you don't get enough vitamin B12, you might end up with symptoms that look like those of MS.

Vitamin B12 helps your body make red blood cells, DNA, and nerves, among other things. Your body doesn't make this vitamin naturally. You get it through animal foods (like meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy), foods with B12 added to them, or supplements.

Most adults need 2.4 micrograms of B12 each day. But some people either don’t take in this much, or their bodies don’t absorb enough. If you have a B12 deficiency, you could:

  • Feel tingling or numbness in your hands, legs, or feet
  • Get very tired and weak
  • Have a hard time walking
  • Have trouble thinking
  • Get a swollen tongue
  • Become anemic

The symptoms can come on quickly or gradually.

Diabetes

When you have diabetes, you have too much sugar in your blood. This can lead to serious health issues. With this condition, you may:

  • Be very tired or cranky
  • Feel hungrier and thirstier
  • Pee more
  • Lose weight for no reason
  • Have blurred vision, slow-healing wounds, or repeated infections

Diabetes can also damage your nerves, a condition called diabetic neuropathy. This can cause numbness, tingling, or pain in your feet and legs. You might also have issues with your urinary tract, heart, digestive system, or blood vessels.

Like MS, diabetes may also lead to vision problems. They result from damage to blood vessels in your eyes. This condition is called diabetic retinopathy.

Type 1 diabetes usually starts when you're a child or in your teens. Type 2 diabetes is more common in people over 40.

Nerve Damage

Other things can also cause neuropathy (nerve damage). It can affect you at any age, but people over 65 are more at risk. Along with diabetes and MS, the causes include:

Symptoms of neuropathy vary, depending on where in your body the damaged nerves are. Some of the most common symptoms are:

  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pain
  • Loss of balance
  • Muscle twitches
  • Not being able to move a part of your body
  • Sweating too much or too little
  • Weight loss
  • Sexual problems
  • Bladder or bowel problems

Eye Problems

Many eye issues can cause blurred vision or vision loss, which are also symptoms of MS. Some of the most common ones are:

Your symptoms will depend on what eye condition you have. But they might include having a hard time reading or driving, trouble seeing at night, or cloudy-looking eyes.

Stroke

You have a stroke when one of the blood vessels that carries nutrients and oxygen to your brain gets blocked or ruptures. This kills some of your brain cells. In serious cases, strokes can leave you disabled or lead to death.

Symptoms of stroke include:

  • Weakness or numbness (especially on just one side of your body)
  • Trouble walking
  • Confusion
  • Problems with speaking or understanding
  • Vision trouble
  • Dizziness
  • An intense headache for no reason

Stroke symptoms happen very suddenly. Get medical help at once if you have them.

Anyone can have a stroke. But they're more likely in people over 55 and those with other health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

Lupus and Other Autoimmune Diseases

Several autoimmune diseases have symptoms that mimic those of MS. An autoimmune disease is one in which your immune system attacks your body's tissues and organs.

One of the more common autoimmune conditions is lupus. It causes inflammation that affects your skin, joints, brain, kidneys, heart, blood cells, and lungs. In some cases, you get a rash across both cheeks.

Symptoms of lupus include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Fever
  • Joint inflammation or pain
  • Fingers or toes that turn white or blue at low temperatures
  • Chest pain
  • Dry eyes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Memory loss and confusion

Women are more likely to get lupus. It's usually diagnosed when you're 15-45 years old.

Parkinson's Disease

This nervous system disorder affects your movement. Symptoms start gradually and get worse over time. They differ from person to person but may include:

  • Trouble walking
  • Trembling
  • Slowed movement
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Problems with posture and balance
  • Changes in speech and writing

Symptoms usually begin on one side of your body and affect that side more intensely, even when you have symptoms on both sides.

Most people who get Parkinson's are 60 or older. It's more common in men.

Lyme Disease

You get this disease through a bite from a deer tick, so it usually happens after you’ve spent time in or near the woods. If not treated, Lyme disease can affect your heart, joints, and nervous system.

Common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Numbness or tingling in your arms, legs, hands, or feet
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Skin rash in the area of the tick bite

Myasthenia Gravis

This immune system disorder causes a breakdown in communication between your muscles and nerves. That leads to muscle weakness and fatigue.

It affects only the muscles you control voluntarily. It most commonly causes problems in your:

  • Eyes
  • Arms and legs
  • Face and throat
  • Neck

The muscle weakness tends to get better after you rest. So symptoms can come and go. But they usually get worse over time.

You can get myasthenia gravis at any age, but it's more common in women under 40 and men over 60.

ALS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease) affects your brain and spinal cord. Eventually, it causes you to lose control of your muscles.

You may first notice twitching muscles, weakness in your arms or legs, or slurred speech. Other symptoms include:

  • Trouble walking
  • Weakness in your legs, feet, or hands
  • Muscle cramps
  • A hard time swallowing
  • Changes in your behavior
  • Random laughing, crying, or yawning

There's no cure for ALS. Over time, it makes you less able to speak, eat, move, and breathe.

ALS runs in families. It's most often diagnosed in people ages 40-65.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome

This immune system disorder attacks your nerves. It may start with tingling or weakness in your arms and legs and spread to your upper body.

You may also have:

Eventually, it can paralyze your whole body. If you have it, you'll likely need to spend time in the hospital. There's no cure, but most people recover. The majority are able to walk after 6 months.

Doctors don't know what causes Guillain-Barre syndrome. But many people who get it had an infection (such as a respiratory or digestive system infection) a few weeks before.

ADEM

Acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM) is a rare brain and nervous system disorder that can follow a viral or bacterial infection (like an upper respiratory infection). Doctors believe it's an immune reaction to the infection.

Anyone can get it, but it most often affects children. It commonly causes headaches and fever.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Weakness in your arms and legs
  • Tingling and numbness
  • Vision problems
  • Loss of balance
  • Confusion
  • Trouble swallowing

These symptoms tend to come on suddenly. With treatment, most people start to get better in days and are fully recovered within a few months.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: "Multiple Sclerosis (MS)," "Neuropathy (Peripheral Neuropathy)," "Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis (ADEM)."

National Multiple Sclerosis Society: "Other Conditions to Rule Out."

CDC: "About Epstein-Barr Virus," "Common Eye Disorders and Diseases," "Stroke," "Lyme Disease."

Harvard Medical School: "Vitamin B12 deficiency can be sneaky, harmful."

Mayo Clinic: "Diabetes," "Diabetic neuropathy," "Diabetic retinopathy," "Lupus," "Parkinson’s disease," "Myasthenia gravis," "Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)," "Guillain-Barre syndrome."

American Stroke Association: "About Stroke."

Multiple Sclerosis Foundation: "Diseases That Mimic MS."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Risk Factors for Stroke."

National Institutes of Health Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center: "Acute disseminated encephalomyelitis."

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