No two people living with multiple sclerosis (MS) experience it the same way, and symptoms of MS can be unpredictable and vary from person to person. The type and severity of symptoms will also be affected by whether people are tired, hot, fighting infection or just feeling ‘under the weather’.
What causes MS symptoms?
In multiple sclerosis, the protective covering of the central nervous system – myelin – is attacked and damaged, causing interruption to the usual flow of impulses along nerve fibres. Because this damage occurs at various sites, the symptoms each person experiences can vary enormously. These areas of damaged myelin are referred to as ‘lesions’ or ‘plaques’.
Sometimes damage is temporary and the body is able to make a partial repair but at other times the damage is more severe and becomes permanent. Below you will find a list of common symptoms that people with multiple sclerosis may experience. Remember, there are treatments to help manage almost all of them.
Not everyone with MS will experience all of these symptoms and many of them will improve during periods of remission. Above all, remember you don’t have to simply put up with MS symptoms. Almost all can be treated, so don’t suffer in silence! Talk to your GP, neurologist or MS nurse about any symptoms that are causing you problems.
Below are some of the more common symptoms experienced, with a brief explanation. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and they are causing you problems, it is advisable to contact your GP or MS Nurse or ask to be referred to the appropriate specialist. Most symptoms can be treated - you do not have to just put up with them.
What is a relapse?
Sometimes a temporary onset, or worsening of symptoms is actually a clinical relapse. It is often difficult to determine if you are having a relapse. It is important to let your GP and MS nurse know if you think you are experiencing a change in symptoms so they can determine if it is a clinical relapse.
The National Institute for Health & Care Excellence (NICE) published guidelines in October 2014 for the management of multiple sclerosis. In these guidelines a relapse can be diagnosed by a GP or neurologist if: 'The person with MS has developed new symptoms or has a worsening of existing symptoms, and these symptoms have lasted for more than 24 hours in the absence of infection or any other cause after a stable period of a least one month.'
Problems with balance can be caused by many things. If you are experiencing dizziness or balance issues, contact your GP to rule out an inner ear infection or a visual problem, such as double-vision.
In some people with MS, problems with balance can cause unsteadiness, clumsiness, and effect limb movement and posture.
Areas of the brain involved in balance and movement can be affected by the inflammation associated with MS. Messages from the brain to the body can be disrupted, resulting in a loss of coordination. If speech is affected, communication can be challenging. A person may slur their words and appear to be drunk.
Muscle spasms, fatigue, tremor, numbness and neuropathic pain in the legs can also cause balance problems as walking becomes more tentative.
For some people, problems with balance are short-term, for others they may last longer. It is important to talk to your MS nurse and neurologist about your experiences.
There is no specific medication for balance. However if the underlying cause of balance problems relates to an inner ear infection, then medications to resolve the infection can be prescribed.
Also, if balance or unsteadiness is caused by fatigue, then there are fatigue management strategies and medication to help. See our Choices leaflet on Fatigue.
If muscle spasms and spasticity are an issue, then there are medications to treat these symptoms. See our Choices leaflet on Drug Therapies.
If muscle weakness is affecting you, your MS nurse can refer you to a neuro-physiotherapist to develop an exercise programme to assist you in addressing this.
It is important you talk to your GP, MS Nurse and neurologist about these symptoms so they can work together to support you.
Bladder and bowel
Bladder problems are one of the most common symptoms in MS. In fact, problems with the bladder are very common, whether a person has MS, or not. It is estimated that 10 per cent of the UK population experiences difficulties – that’s 6 million people. There is no need to feel embarrassed, and talking to your GP and MS Nurse, is the first step to addressing this symptom.
Bladder problems tend to fall into four areas: urgency – the need to ‘go’ with little or no warning; frequency – having to ‘go’ more than 8 times per day; hesitancy – finding emptying the bladder difficult and retention – you can empty the bladder, but have a feeling of incompletion. Many people have a combination of some of these.
There are medications to help with bladder issues and your GP and MS Nurse can also refer you to a Continence Advisor to help you find ways to deal with bladder problems.
Approximately half of people with MS will experience bowel problems to some degree – constipation and emptying of the bowel are the most common. The other problem area is incontinence and lack of control over the bowel opening.
Again, a referral to a Continence Advisor will help to find ways in which to deal with problems in all these areas.
For more detailed information, please see our Choices leaflet on Bladder & Bowel.
Approximately half of people diagnosed with MS will have cognitive problems. These will range from fairly mild on a day-to-day basis to an increased worsening during a relapse. Initially, people may not realise that cognitive problems are associated with their MS.
The most common problems are memory, information processing, problem solving, word-finding and concentration. To manage these problems, people may have to look at different ways to help themselves such as creating aide memoirs or using technology and avoiding jobs which need concentration when fatigued or stressed.
Symptoms can become more pronounced if you are tired, upset or anxious.
Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between cognition, depression and fatigue. It is important you talk to your GP and MS nurse about what you are experiencing.
The National Institute of Care Excellence (NICE) stated in their guidelines for the management of MS, published in October 2014, that people with persistent memory or cognitive problems are considered for referral to both an occupational therapist and neuropsychologist to assess and manage these symptoms.
Your MS nurse can talk to you about whether you would benefit from such a referral.
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, or others that may not be mentioned, you can also contact MS-UK for more information and support.
Extreme tiredness is a common symptom of MS. Fatigue is an invisible symptom that is not obvious to other people and can be quite difficult to cope with and manage. There are a number of ways in which people learn to live with their fatigue and drug treatments are also available.
For more detailed information, see our Choices leaflet on Fatigue.
Foot drop is a symptom experienced by some people with MS and it is caused by a weakness in the ankle that causes the foot to drag along the ground or hang down when walking.
People who experience foot drop are more vulnerable to tripping and falling. When walking, they use more energy and people may alter their gait to compensate, by lifting their leg higher.
Foot drop can be treated using an ankle sprint to hold the foot in a rigid position, or functional electrical stimulation (FES). FES uses small electrodes either stuck to the surface of the skin or implanted under the skin, to deliver small electrical impulses to activate the muscles and support the foot’s movement into a more natural position for walking.
The FES device is activated by a pressure sensor worn in the shoe. When the foot is lifted, an electrical pulse is applied and the foot tilts into the correct alignment. When the foot is placed on the ground, the sensor is deactivated and the impulse stops.
Some people with MS experience a temporary worsening of symptoms in heat – for example during warm weather, or while taking a bath. You might feel fatigued, or experience an increase in pain, or feel cognitive symptoms are worse. A change in body temperature can also give rise to Uhthoff’s Sign – causing blurred vision. See Visual Symptoms below.
Although uncomfortable, such symptoms are temporary and will resolve when the body is cooled down.
If you are sensitive to heat, there are a number of strategies to help keep cool in hot weather including taking regular cold drinks, wrapping a damp towel around your neck, using ice in a tray of water in front of fan to create an air-conditioning effect.
For more detailed information, see our Choices leaflet on Fatigue.
Muscle and motor disturbances
This can be the loss of control of one or more limbs. For example, sudden and uncontrollable shock-like movements, jerksof a muscle or a group of muscles called myoclonus; swallowing difficulties; tremor and the inability to perform fine movements – doing up buttons, tying shoe laces. Legs or arms may suddenly go into spasm which is often painful. Walking may become difficult.
For more detailed information, see our Choices leaflet on Drug Therapies.
Over half of people with MS experience pain. Pain is often described as stabbing, burning, tingling or pins and needles. Pain is subjective and no two people will experience pain in the same way.
There are two main types of pain that can occur – neuropathic and musculoskeletal.
Once the cause is identified the pain can be treated with medication, if it is neuropathic in origin, or by seeing a physiotherapist, if it is musculoskeletal.
Pain can be challenging to manage, but there are many medications, therapies and management strategies.
For more detailed information, see our Choices leaflet on Pain.
The impairment of sensory perception includes the loss of feeling in limbs and other areas. The sensations can include tingling, crawling sensations over the skin, numbness or tightness, and sometimes pain.The medical term for these uncomfortable, abnormal sensations, such as these is dysaesthesia or paraesthesia. These feelings are classed as neuropathic pain symptoms.
Another sensory symptom is the feeling of an ‘electrical rush’ radiating from the neck and down the spine, when the head is flexed towards the chest. This is known as Lhermitte’s Sign and was named after the French neurologist who first described it in 1924.
Lhermitte’s Sign is thought to be a sign that the nerves are inflammed and flexing the head causes this transient feeling.
Lhermitte’s Sign is associated with MS, sometimes even before diagnosis, but is not sufficient in itself to confirm a diagnosis of MS as it is associated with other conditions. It is important to talk to your GP if you are experiencing this sensory symptom to rule out any other causes, such as injury to the neck.
Another sensory symptom associated with heat fatigue is Uhthoff's Phenomenon or Uhthoff's Sign. This is a temporary worsening of symptoms – often visual disturbances, but sometimes motor or sensory symptoms - caused by a rise in body temperature, for example while exercising or taking a hot bath. The visual symptoms may present as double vision, a blurring of vision, loss of colour vision or a ‘greying-out’ of vision.
The symptom takes its name from Wilhelm Uhthoff, a German ophthalmologist, who first described this symptom in 1890.
Uhthoff’s Sign can be worrying, but if it happens stop exercising or move away from the heat source, and cool the body down with a cold drink or fan. Once you are at normal body temperature, Uhthoff’s sign will slowly abate.
Banding is a sensory symptom where it feels as if there is a tight elastic band around the ribs, or one side of the torso. Sometimes it is called the ‘MS Hug’, although it can also affect feet and hands, as if you are wearing gloves or socks.
If you experience tightness across the chest, contact your GP.
Banding associated with MS can be treated with pain medication and, although uncomfortable, most people find it will pass without needing treatment. Some people find that wearing tight clothing, such as a sports vest or elasticated gloves or socks, actually helps alleviate the discomfort. Be careful to ensure you are not restricting circulation.
For more detailed information on all sensory symptoms, see our Choices leaflet on Pain.
Speech and swallowing
Speech and swallowing disorders can arise as a symptom of MS for some people. Speech disorders include dysarthria – slurring of speech due to weakness or lack of coordination in the muscles used in speech and dysphagia – swallowing difficulties.
Although they may develop at any stage, for most people, speech disorders only become apparent in the later stages of the condition and this may mean the help of a speech and language therapist. More complex problems may also benefit from the use of communication aids and equipment.
Studies have found that around a third of people with MS experience swallowing difficulties to some degree. This can be caused by damage affecting the coordination of the various muscles involved. The result can be difficulty chewing or episodes of coughing or choking when eating and drinking.
If the swallowing problems are more advanced and eating is putting the individual at risk, nutrition can be provided through a procedure called percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG).
If you are experiencing these symptoms, contact your MS nurse who can refer you to a Speech and Language specialist.
You can also contact MS-UK for more information and support.
Spasticity is where the signals from the brain are interrupted and the muscle remains in its shortened, contracted state. This causes the affected muscle to feel stiff or tight and to be resistant to movement. The degree of spasticity will vary from person to person and can greatly impact on many activities. Nevertheless, spasticity can be successfully managed.
Sometimes spasticity is triggered by infections or bladder and bowel problems. If spasms worsen, it is important to be seen by your GP.
Left untreated, spasticity can lead to complications such as frozen or immobilised joints and pressure sores.
Spasms are different to spasticity in that, although they involve similar muscle contractions they can come on very suddenly, and relax as suddenly. Most spasms occur in the legs and arms, and less commonly the throat. Spasms can be painful and lead to interrupted sleep.
There are many medications and management strategies available for the symptoms of spasm and spasticity.
For more detailed information, see our Choices leaflet on Drug Therapies.
Tremor is involuntary, uncontrolled movements. The type of tremor that is most frequently experienced in MS is intention tremor – a tremor that worsens as the individual reaches for an object. It is thought that tremor is due to lesions in the cerebellum, the area of the brain responsible for balance, co-ordination and fluidity of movement. Stress and fatigue are known to worsen tremor.
About one third of people with MS may have tremor to some degree. For some people it can be a relatively mild problem with coordination, but for others it can be one of the most disabling symptoms of MS.
For mild tremor, adjustments in posture such as holding an arm closer to the body when moving a cup to the mouth, can help with the stability of the movement.
Your MS nurse can refer you to an Occupational Therapist who can offer practical advice in managing tremor – perhaps suggesting aids or appliances which can help, such as cups with easy-grip handles. A physiotherapist can also set up an exercise programme to increase strength in muscles which are weaker and may be contributing to the tremor’s severity.
Talk to your GP or MS nurse about the medications that are available to help with tremor.
There are several problems that can affect the vision of people with MS. The most common symptom is optic neuritis – inflammation of the optic nerve, which is also one of the more common first symptoms that can lead to a diagnosis of MS.
Other problems can include: double vision – diplopia, a symptom which can occur as part of a relapse of MS, but will often recover partially or fully with the use of steroids and nystagmus -- rhythmical oscillations of the eye ball which sometimes goes unnoticed by the person, but is obvious to others.
For more detailed information, see our Choices leaflet on Visual Symptoms.