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What is MS relapse?

An MS relapse is when a symptom suddenly gets worse or when you become more aware of a pre-existing symptom. 

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

“I’m recently diagnosed and still trying to get my head around things. Today, I had some numbness in my left hand. This is a new symptom for me. Could this be the start of a relapse? If so, what’s the best thing to do?”

If you have been diagnosed with the most common type of MS – relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis – you will, at some point, experience something called a relapse. With a relapse, your symptoms will develop and affect you for anywhere between a few days to a few weeks, or perhaps even longer – although, as with all things MS, it’s different for everyone.

You might also hear a relapse called a flare, or flare up, too, although a relapse is different to a flare. Sometimes, it’s called an attack, or an episode. Whatever term you use, or hear, it’s often referring to the same thing – a way of identifying a change in symptoms.

So, what does an MS relapse feel like? How do you know if your MS symptoms are a relapse? And, what can you do to manage MS relapse symptoms?

Watch our film titled "Relapses24x24" features 24 stories of MS relapses, as shared by MSers

Read all the conversation from members of the community on the forum here.

Join the Shift.ms community today – it’s completely free – to start sharing and finding help.

Is an MS relapse flare the same as an MS flare?

No, a multiple sclerosis relapse is not the same as a flare. A relapse is the occurrence of new, or the worsening of, existing symptoms that are present for longer than 24 hours. 

A relapse might also be described as a flare or flare up of symptoms but there are distinct differences. If you’re experiencing an increase in symptoms, your MS team is likely to ask a series of in-depth questions to try to determine whether you’re having a relapse or a flare up. If a symptom feels worse or more pronounced for a prolonged period of time, this could indicate a relapse.

An example of MS flare up may be when women experience the worsening of symptoms or be more aware of a symptom around their period. 

To be classed as an MS relapse, a new symptom must occur at least 30 days after the last relapse – and the symptoms must endure for at least 24 hours.

“If the sensation lasts more than 2-3 days I think it’s good to contact your MS team, especially if you feel them all day long constantly. Based on my experiences, sensations and symptoms come and go in lots of cases.” @Hila

Research by Shift.ms has shown that 81% of people have mistakenly identified a relapse in the past. There’s a difference between a relapse and a bad day; there are many other health blips that can pop up as a consequence of daily life that can make you feel pretty rubbish. These are more likely to be flare ups than relapses.

Some MSers have talked about general aches and pains, or tiredness, prompting concerns of a relapse. A kidney or bladder infection, or lower back pain, might also be mistaken for an MS relapse. So could pregnancy symptoms, or symptoms relating to living with the menopause. These aren’t relapses, though might be classed as a flare up.

It’s important to keep a diary to record any patterns or habits, which might potentially identify triggers and causes. How you are feeling can be affected by different factors, including stress, illness or a change in the environment.

Ultimately, if you’re concerned about symptoms you should get it checked out by a medical professional. If something feels different, or strange, or scary, don’t self diagnose.

What does an MS flare feel like?

“For the last few days I’ve had severe numbness in my leg and hand, sharp pains in my fingers too. Struggling to use my strength and feeling super tired.”

As we know all too well, multiple sclerosis symptoms vary from person to person. Your MS symptoms are not the same as everyone else’s. An MS relapse may feel different to you than the next person. In the event of a flare up or relapse, you might experience the same recurring symptoms, or be presented with new symptoms.

Common symptoms that you may experience during an MS relapse may be:

  • Burning or tingling sensations down the hand or arm
  • Double or blurred vision
  • Fatigue
  • Numbness
  • Balance issues/dizziness
  • Bladder/bowel issues
  • Cognitive/memory problems
  • Tremor/shaking
  • Pain
  • Altered mobility

With an MS relapse, symptoms can worsen over the course of a few days. Again, if you’re worried, contact a healthcare professional for more advice.

Join the Shift.ms community today – it’s completely free – to start sharing and finding help.

How to manage an MS relapse

If you think you’re having a relapse, monitor your symptoms. If they are mild and manageable, you may choose to rest and wait it out; MS relapse symptoms can pass and ease. Give yourself and your body time to recover, but it’s still important that you let your MS team know about what’s happened.

However, if the symptoms are more severe – say they’re having a serious impact on you – you need to get in touch with your MS support team, who may carry out a relapse assessment. This involves being asked a lot of questions, such as the timeline of the events, the sequence of the symptoms coming on, and whether they are better, the same, or worse.

You might be asked what impact they’re having on you, on a day-to-day basis, and if you’ve had any infections, or started on any new medication – anything which is different to your normal routine and life.

You may be advised to have a course of steroids to speed up the recovery of the relapse – steroids don’t affect the outcome of recovery from a relapse – but these are not indicated if there is infection, or in all cases, and should not be taken without an assessment form your MS team.

You can be given medication for symptom management, if indicated, and potentially referred to members of the MDT (neurophysio/occupational therapists, etc) for further assessment of your eligibility for DMTs.

Join the Shift.ms community today – it’s completely free – to start sharing and finding help.

MS Trust


National MS Society