Maybe you’ve felt exhausted or weak lately. Or your foot is starting to tingle. So you do a quick internet search and come up with an alarming result: Your symptom is one of the signs of multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease of the brain and spinal cord.
Before you start to worry, know that many signs of the condition are the same as symptoms of other health problems. So it’s easy to mistake another issue for MS, which affects less than 1% of Americans.
How can you tell if what you’re feeling is caused by MS or something else? First, keep in mind that most people have the first signs of the disease between the ages of 20 and 40. You can also keep track of your problems: MS symptoms tend to come and go or get worse over time.
It helps to know what else can explain some of the signs you might be feeling.
Numbness or Tingling
A lack of feeling or a pins-and-needles sensation can be the first sign of the nerve damage from MS. It usually happens in the face, arms, or legs, and on one side of the body. It also tends to go away on its own.
Numbness and tingling can also come from a lack of blood flow or a pinched nerve, so think first if you slept in a funny position or sat without moving for a long time. Other conditions can also lead to nerve damage: Carpal tunnel syndrome affects the wrist, while diabetic neuropathy can trigger numbness, tingling, or pain in the feet or hands.
Is the room spinning? MS can make you feel lightheaded or off-balance, usually when you’re standing up and moving around.
If you’re dizzy and nauseous when you’re lying down, or if you stumble to one side, it could be a problem with your inner ear, which controls your balance. Medications, such as those for depression and seizure disorders, can cause similar problems too. If the dizziness or stumbling are sudden or new, go to the emergency department at your local hospital to be checked out. It could be a stroke.
Did a quick wave of lightheadedness hit? That’s often a sign of low blood sugar, dehydration, or a sudden drop in blood pressure you get when you stand up quickly. You may need to slowly rise instead of hopping to your feet. Learn more about the causes of dizziness.
About 80% of people with MS feel very tired, making it one of the most common symptoms. But a number of things can make you feel exhausted, including a sleep disorder, depression, or too little iron in your blood.
MS fatigue tends to be worse than run-of-the-mill sluggishness. You may not have the energy to do even simple things, like cook dinner or take the dog for a walk. Other signs include:
- You feel wiped out every day.
- You’re tired in the morning, even after a good night’s sleep, and it gets worse as the day goes on.
- You feel fatigued easily and suddenly.
- It gets worse in heat and humidity.
Don’t have these signs? To ease your fatigue, make sure you get enough sleep, exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, and keep your stress in check. Talk to your doctor if you just can’t seem to feel rested. Learn more about what causes extreme fatigue.
Lifting that 10-pound dumbbell was part of your usual workout routine, but now it feels impossible. What gives? Sudden weakness, especially in an arm or leg, is an MS symptom.
Weakness on just one side of the body can be from something mild like a pinched nerve or a serious problem like a stroke. If it happens along with other symptoms, like a drooping face or slurred speech, call 911 right away. Learn about conditions that look like a stroke.
Blurred or Loss of Vision
You’re reading a book and suddenly you see two of the same line or the page becomes a gray jumble. Vision problems caused by MS usually come on suddenly. They include:
If your sight is slowly getting worse, there’s most likely another issue to blame. Some blurriness is a normal part of aging -- you may just need a new pair of glasses. A more serious issue, such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, or diabetic retinopathy, can also lead to vision problems like blind spots. To rule out these diseases, have a checkup with your eye doctor. Learn more about symptoms of common vision problems.
“What did you say?” People with MS might hear this phrase a lot -- the disease can damage the part of your brain that controls speech. Here are the main symptoms:
- Slurred words
- Nasal speech, or sounding like you have a cold
- Long pauses between words or syllables, called scanning speech
If you drink too much alcohol, your speech might be slurred for a little while. But if the problem comes out of nowhere, call for help right away. It could be a sign of a brain injury or stroke. Learn more about causes of sudden speech problems.
About 55% of people with MS say they have pain at one point or another, while 48% have long-lasting pain. There are a few different types they might have, such as:
- Throbbing pain in the face
- Brief, intense pain that runs from the back of the head to the spine
- Burning or aching across the body, which is also called the “MS hug”
- Aches caused by stiffness or muscle spasms
Pain can happen for many reasons. If you hurt, talk to your doctor about where and when it happens. They can help you know if the cause is MS or another problem. Learn more about types of pain and their causes.
About 80% of people with MS have bladder problems at some point. It happens because MS lesions interfere with nerve signals that help to control the bladder. You may notice that you:
- Find it harder to start peeing
- Have to pee more often
- Feel a more urgent need to pee
- Pee more at night
- Can’t hold it in (incontinence)
- Feel like you can’t completely empty your bladder
When to See Your Doctor
If you have sudden numbness on one side of your body or trouble seeing or speaking, get medical help right away. These are signs of a life-threatening stroke.
If your symptoms are out of the ordinary for you and last for more than a day, make an appointment to see your doctor. They can talk to you about what you’re feeling and do some tests to see if your issues are because of MS or another health problem.