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A guide to MS symptoms

You’ve come to the right place! There’s a wealth of experience and knowledge on Shift.ms and we’re always ready to answer questions, pick you up when you’re feeling down and cheer you on when you’re feeling chipper. We’re all in the same boat here – it’s like an extended MS family."

Multiple sclerosis may come with a long list of possible symptoms, but you’re unlikely to experience them all. The symptoms you do experience may not be permanent and may vary in intensity. MS affects people in different ways.

Article medically reviewed by Karen Vernon an MS Nursing Specialist at Salford Royal Foundation Trust.

This guide will take a closer look at some of the more common symptoms of MS, and some of the less common. It will explain what’s meant by invisible and visible symptoms, and briefly cover other conditions that have similar symptoms to MS.

If you’re showing symptoms of MS but haven’t received a diagnosis, or are recently diagnosed, this may be a very worrying time. Shift.ms is a digital community of over 50,000 MSers (people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis) who have been where you are now, and are here to support you and help you make sense of your diagnosis.

Before you dive into this, here are three important points:

→ Treatment with disease modifying therapies (DMTs) for MS are available

→ You can join the Shift.ms community for free and share your experience with other MSers

→ Symptom management is an important part of health care intervention and self management. Symptoms vary from person to person (yes, you’ve read it before, but it bears repeating)

Creating your free Shift.ms account takes two minutes. Join our community, it's run by MSers, for MSers.

What is MS

What is multiple sclerosis? MS is a lifelong neurological condition that affects the body in a range of different ways. With MS, the immune system attacks the nerves in your brain and spinal cord – myelin, the coating that protects the nerves in your body, is damaged, and the central nervous system is impacted. 

The damaged myelin is identifiable by the scars (or lesions) on the nerve fibres. Messages that travel along the damaged nerve fibres are interrupted which leads to the presentation of symptoms. Because the central nervous system controls different parts of the body, the symptoms of multiple sclerosis can be present in several areas, from general fatigue to more specific things such as problems with vision or bladder issues. There is currently no cure for MS, but there have been huge advancements in treatments over the last decade.

Multiple sclerosis affects everyone differently, which refers to the types of symptoms as well as the severity of symptoms.

Visible symptoms

Multiple sclerosis symptoms are typically classified in two different groups – visible and invisible. 

Visible symptoms of MS include those that are obvious, and easy for other people to see. If you have issues with walking, mobility and balance, these are visible symptoms. They’re noticeable to other people. Speech problems, spasticity and tremors or shaking are the same.

Invisible symptoms

Invisible symptoms of MS are the unseen challenges. People who don’t know that you’re living with MS might be completely unaware of your condition unless you choose to tell them. Invisible symptoms of multiple sclerosis include problems with vision, dizziness, cognition and even fatigue, to a certain extent. Of course, there are a host of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, that are also considered invisible symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Common symptoms of MS

Fatigue
Loss of vision or vision problems
Walking and balance issues
Muscle spasms and spasticity
Bladder and bowel problems
Sexual Problems
Cognitive and memory problems

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Other symptoms of MS

There are also a range of MS symptoms that, although considered less common, can still affect MSers and have an impact on quality of life. Some of these include:

Hearing loss

Although this is a relatively rare symptom of multiple sclerosis - some studies have shown only around 4-5% of MSers experience this – hearing loss can occur. That hearing loss can be sudden, or gradual over a period of days. There might also be other hearing issues, such as ringing in the ears, also known as tinnitus.

Difficulty swallowing

Some MSers will experience problems swallowing, or chewing, which makes it difficult to eat or drink at times. The official name for this condition is dysphagia, and while it’s a symptom of MS, it can also be a symptom of other medical conditions so it’s not exclusive to multiple sclerosis.

Speech problems

Speech issues may be a symptom of MS. If you have MS you may experience slurring – known as dysarthria – stuttering, or just generally find it difficult to talk clearly enough. This can make it hard for other people to understand what you’re trying to say. That can be really frustrating – most of all for you.

Mental health symptoms

Multiple sclerosis is a long-term, lifelong condition that, when symptoms are at their most severe, can have a debilitating effect on your health. Because of this, it’s usual to experience poor mental health at times – as a symptom of multiple sclerosis before diagnosis and especially after a diagnosis for MS.

It can be a lot to live with. MS can be challenging to accept, living with constant ‘what ifs?’ and uncertainties. Mental health problems are something many of our members have shared with us on the Shift.ms blog.

Common mental health issues that can manifest as a result of multiple sclerosis include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Mood swings
  • Behavioural changes

MS Symptoms checklist

Symptoms of MS aren’t always obvious, especially early on. You might experience several multiple sclerosis symptoms, someone else one or two. Here’s a recap of some of the most common MS symptoms:

See more

What other conditions have symptoms similar to MS?

Multiple sclerosis can be difficult to diagnose, because there’s no single test for it, but also because many MS symptoms are similar to those experienced with other conditions.

So, the symptoms you’re experiencing might not be evidence of multiple sclerosis. If it’s not MS, what else could it be?

Conditions that have crossover symptoms with multiple sclerosis include fibromyalgia which is also a long-term health challenge. Fibromyalgia symptoms include muscle and joint pain, fatigue, tingling and numbness – all of which are among the most common symptoms of MS. 

Another condition is Neuromyelitis optica (NMO) which is also sometimes known as Neuromyelitis Optica Spectrum Disorder (NMOSD). Like MS, this condition also attacks myelin, the protective coating of the nerves in the body, but in the spinal cord and typically not the brain. With NMO, there can be loss of vision, numbness in limbs and problems with bladder and bowel control.

Infections of the central nervous system – such as Lyme disease –  show similar symptoms to multiple sclerosis, as do some types of inflammatory disorders, including sarcoidosis and vasculitis.

The effects of suffering a stroke might also be confused, at least initially, with MS. With a stroke, it’s common to experience speech problems, such as slurring, issues walking, numbness in parts of the body, and problems with vision.

For these reasons, you should never self-diagnose multiple sclerosis, even if you’re experiencing several common symptoms. The same symptoms could be symptomatic of another health condition.

MS symptoms - what next?

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above and are concerned that you might have multiple sclerosis, it’s important to seek professional help. In the first instance, this means booking an appointment with your doctor to discuss your symptoms, and what you’re feeling. You might then be referred to a specialist – a neurologist – for further discussion and potentially tests.

At Shift.ms, we have a community of MSers living with multiple sclerosis at all stages – whether that’s pre-diagnosis, newly diagnosed or after years of living with and managing the condition.

Shift.ms members have been exactly where you are now, and can provide support, advice and understanding. Join our community to connect with other MSers – it’s free

Sources:

* https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/multiple-sclerosis/symptoms/

** https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/multiple-sclerosis/symptoms/

*** https://www.mssociety.org.uk/about-ms/signs-and-symptoms

https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms

https://www.mssociety.org.uk/about-ms/signs-and-symptoms

https://www.mstrust.org.uk/information-support/ms-symptoms-diagnosis/signs-and-symptoms