What Are Common Symptoms of MS?

In MS, the body mistakenly attacks its own nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Nerves carry information from our body to our brain about physical movements, pain, vision, hearing, and more.

When these nerves are damaged by inflammation (also called demyelination) our body can experience a variety of symptoms. These symptoms depend on which nerves are affected. This is why symptoms of MS can be quite different from person to person. Symptoms worsen during MS flares. These are also called exacerbations or attacks.1,2

Common MS symptoms

MS symptoms are wide-reaching but can be divided into several different categories.

Motor and muscle symptoms

Our nerves carry information about our muscles and limbs to and from the brain. If these pathways are damaged, your brain may have trouble sending signals. This can impact the way the body moves and muscles work. Several potential motor and muscle issues with MS include:1,2

  • Trouble walking: This includes problems with gait (the way our walk looks), balance, and coordination.
  • Muscle weakness: It is possible to have weakness in the legs, arms, hands, hips, shins, or other muscle groups with MS. Some people experience paraplegia (weakness in both legs).
  • Spasticity: People who have spasticity have extreme muscle stiffness. They may also have muscle spasms. These spasms can cause pain and limit how well certain muscle groups work.

Perception issues

Our nerves also carry signals about the things around us. This includes pain, touch sensation, vision, balance and more. Common perception issues include:1,2

  • Numbness: Some experience a loss of sensation in different areas of the body. A person may not be able to feel a small part of their body, like a finger or toe. However, numbness can affect larger areas of the body, too. People with numbness may also experience tingling. This “pins and needles” feeling is also called paresthesia.
  • Vision problems: People with MS can have vision issues. They may have double vision (also called diplopia) or reduced vision. Reduced vision can be caused by inflammation of the optic nerve (called optic neuritis). MS can also change the way the eyes coordinate, move, and talk with each other. This is called internuclear opthalmoplegia (INO). It can lead to blurry vision.
  • Dizziness and vertigo: Our nerves coordinate many signals to help us balance and feel steady. In MS, some may feel light-headedness. They may also feel like they are spinning or like their surroundings are spinning.
  • Lhermitte’s sign: This is an electric-like sensation that travels down the back into the limbs when you bend your head forward.
  • Pain: Pain can vary in MS. It can be bodily or muscle pain, called somatic pain. Pain can also come in the form of headaches. Damage to the nerves of the face may also cause facial pain. This is called trigeminal neuralgia.

Cognitive and mental challenges

MS affects more than the physical body alone. It can also impact the way the brain functions as well as a person’s emotional and mental well-being.1,2

  • Fatigue: Overwhelming and debilitating tiredness. Fatigue can be the result of constant inflammation throughout the body, like in MS.
  • Cognitive issues: These include difficulties with memory, attention, or problem-solving. A person with MS may also experience trouble making decisions or impaired judgment.
  • Emotional changes: Mood swings, depression, stress, and anxiety are common in MS. One possible change is uncontrolled laughing or crying. This is called the pseudobulbar affect.

Other neurological symptoms

The nervous system controls many things besides sensation and movement. It also plays a role in going to the bathroom and sex, among many other things.1,2

  • Bladder changes: Some may experience an increase in the number of times they have to go to the bathroom and how quickly they need to go. It is also possible to have dribbling of urine and trouble holding your pee. Others may struggle to urinate once on the toilet.
  • Bowel difficulties: Constipation, diarrhea, or bowel incontinence are not uncommon with MS.
  • Sexual dysfunction: Sexual dysfunction can take many forms. People with MS may have decreased sensation or sex drive. Others may have pain or trouble with orgasm. Men may have erectile dysfunction or difficulty with ejaculation. Women may experience weakness in the vaginal muscles or decreased lubrication.
  • Less common symptoms

    There are also other less common symptoms of MS. These include but are not limited to:1,2

    As mentioned, this is not a full list of all potential MS symptoms. Each person’s symptoms are different. If you notice a new or worsening symptom, talk with your doctor. They can help determine if it is related to your MS or something else.

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Written by: Casey Hribar | Last reviewed: May 2021.