What Are Common Symptoms of MS?
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2022. | Last updated: March 2022
In multiple sclerosis (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.1
When these nerves are damaged by inflammation, our body can experience a variety of symptoms. These symptoms depend on which nerves are affected. This is why symptoms of MS are different from person to person. Symptoms worsen or new symptoms appear during MS flares. These are also sometimes 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, the brain or spinal cord 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:1-4
- Trouble walking – This includes problems with gait (the way we walk), balance, and coordination.
- Muscle weakness – It is possible to have weakness in the legs, arms, hands, hips, face, or other muscle groups with MS. Some people experience weakness in both legs (paraplegia).
- 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.
Our nerves also carry signals about the things around us. This includes pain, touch sensation, vision, balance and more. Common sensory issues with MS include:1-4
- 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 abnormal positive sensory symptoms (paresthesias), such as tingling (“pins and needles”) or burning sensations.
- Vision problems – People with MS can have vision issues. They may have double vision (diplopia) or reduced vision. Reduced vision can be caused by inflammation of the optic nerve (optic neuritis). The optic nerve carries vision signals from the eye to the brain. MS can also interfere with eye movements, alignment, and coordination. This can lead to double or 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 the head is bent forward. This is a result of damage to sensory nerves in the neck potion of the spinal cord.
- Pain – Pain can vary in MS. It can be joint or muscle pain (somatic pain) or pain secondary to nerve damage (neuropathic pain). Pain can also come in the form of headaches. Damage to the nerves of the face may also cause facial neuropathic pain (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. Challenges can include:1-4
- Fatigue – Fatigue is the sense of overwhelming and debilitating tiredness. It can be the result of constant inflammation throughout the body or damage to certain areas of the brain, 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 uncontrollable laughing or crying (pseudobulbar affect or PBA).
Other neurological symptoms
The nervous system controls other functions besides sensation and movement. It also plays a role in going to the bathroom and sex, among many other things. Symptoms may include:1-4
- 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 of the vaginal muscles or decreased lubrication.
Less common symptoms
There are also many other less common symptoms of MS. These may include:1-4
- Seizures (abnormal movements that may occur with a loss of consciousness)
- Trouble speaking (dysarthria)
- Swallowing problems (dysphagia)
- Tremor or shakiness of the hands or limbs
- Difficulties with breathing
This is not a full list of all possible MS symptoms. Each person’s symptoms are different due to the unique areas of the brain or spinal cord affected by MS. 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 and whether it requires treatment.