Skip to main content

15 Early Signs & Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

7 min read

By Emily Lockhart

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Gerald Morris

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive autoimmune disorder that wears away at the coverings that protect the nerve cells. Affecting about 2.5-million people around the world, MS gradually weakens bodily function by attacking the cells of the brain and spinal column.

For some unknown reason, MS affects twice as many women as it does men, but heredity is the prime cause of vulnerability to this chronic disease and its unpredictable symptoms.

15 important early warning symptoms of MS are…

1. Numbness

A constant tingling and numbness often resides in the face and extremities (i.e., the legs, arms, and fingers) of those with MS due to nerve cell damage to the brain and spinal column. This numbness is often linked to the fact that MS strikes the brain and spinal column (the body’s message center).

The brain and spinal column often send conflicting signals or no signals at all, which will often cause numbness in the areas of the legs, arms, fingers, and face. Numbness is often accompanied by tingling sensations, while other common early symptoms include fatigue, pain, and muscle spasms.

2. Exhaustion

Unexplained muscle fatigue and muscle weakness, especially in the legs and feet, impact the majority of individuals with early MS. Fatigue will become more severe as the nerves of the spinal column degrade. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, roughly 80-percent of patients with early stage MS experience this chronic fatigue and muscle weakness.

Chronic exhaustion and muscle weakness is the typical result of nerves gradually deteriorating in the spinal column. Many MS patients experience no noticeable signs of a problem at the outset of the disease. However, slight weakness can progress quickly into unexplained fatigue, lightheadedness, incoordination, balance issues, and vertigo that strikes suddenly and stretches on for days or weeks at a time.

3. Vision Problems

One of the earliest signs of MS is problems with vision, which slowly degrades over time and is sometimes accompanied by eye pain. This is due to inflammation of the optic nerve, a condition medically referred to as optic neuritis, which causes blurry vision in one or both eyes, even color blindness.

The inflammation of the optic nerve can affect your central vision, causing blurred vision, blind spots, pain, double vision, color blindness, or impaired vision in one or both eyes. MS vision issues typically come on gradually as vision degeneration can be slow.

4. Loss of Bowel and Bladder Control

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, approximately 80-percent of MS patients have trouble with bowel and bladder control.

This is due to the fact that bladder and bowel function is largely controlled by the central nervous system (CNS). Degeneration of nerves can lead to urinary frequency, urinary incontinence (or inability to hold urine), frequent nighttime bathroom trips, constipation, loss of bowel control, and explosive diarrhea as well as lack of sexual arousal.

5. Memory Loss

Because MS attacks the CNS, it’s common for those with more advanced MS to suffer from a combination of memory loss, inability to focus, and speech or language issues. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, roughly 50-percent of those struggling with MS suffer impaired cognitive function.

Deterioration of the CNS can present itself in various ways to various MS patients. For instance, patients may experience disorganization, decision making issues, memory lapses, lack of focus, declined attention span, and even speech and language issues. Understandably, these impairments to cognitive function can cause irritability and depression in many patients.

6. Muscle Spasms

Jerky and spontaneous muscle spasms are one of the more visible and embarrassing symptoms of MS. Muscle spasms are often quite painful and can leave the extremities (i.e., the arms and legs) quite sore and stiff afterwards. According to research from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, chronic and painful muscle spasms are suffered by approximately 50-percent of all patients.

Constant muscle pain and involuntary muscle movements (or spasms) are also commonly accompanied by chronic joint and muscle stiffness and jerking movements (particularly in the extremities), as well as chronic back pain.

7. Sexual Dysfunction

Sex drive can also lessen and even disappear for those suffering with the stressful and unpredictable symptoms of MS. Sex can become a challenge due to the deterioration of the CNS. According to research from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, sexual arousal is largely controlled by the CNS with the brain receiving the initial messages from the CNS, and thus sending signals out to the sexual organs via the nerves of the spinal cord.

However, as MS deteriorates these spinal cord nerve pathways, arousal, sexual fatigue, involuntary muscle spasticity, and orgasm can be impaired. Understandably, sexual function can also decline as a result of depression and low self-esteem. A study by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society indicated that roughly 63-percent of MS patients reported sexual decline and dysfunction following their diagnosis.

8. Dizziness

In addition to cognitive impairment and memory issues, problems with balance and gait can become troublesome as MS degrades the nerve cells and challenges coordination and mobility. This explains why many MS patients suffer a form of dizziness referred to as vertigo and walk using a cane for support.

Because coordination is controlled primarily by the CNS, balance can gradually decline and feelings of spinning, lightheadedness, and dizziness can occur when a person goes from sitting or lying down to standing. Gait issues (or issues with balance) often lead to MS patients using canes, walkers, and eventually wheelchairs, as mobility decreases.

9. Seizures

Seizures (epilepsy) are very common in patients with MS. They occur most often from the development of lesions in the area of the brain known as the cerebral cortex (the outermost neural tissue that covers and protects the cerebrum). The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain. In fact, according to an Italian study published by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the risk of epilepsy is heightened in patients with MS.

The study monitored 170 MS cases between the years 1975 and 1994, including a complete neurological examination of each patient to discover if MS led to the development of epilepsy after the onset and diagnosis of MS. It concluded that the risk of developing epilepsy tripled for MS patients as compared to the general public.

10. Depression

Suffering with a debilitating condition, such as MS, will often take its toll on a patient’s emotional health as well as their physical health, which explains why many MS sufferers battle with severe depression, irritability, and mood swings. This is why, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, depression and mood disorders are fairly common among MS patients.

MS is a roller coaster of a disease so it makes sense that living with it will be a roller coaster of emotions as it affects a patients mobility, memory, ability to care for themselves, independence, and personal relationships. In addition to depression, living with the disease can cause moodiness, irritability (particularly with memory and cognitive decline), and bouts of uncontrollable laughing followed by bouts of uncontrolled crying (a condition known as pseudo bulbar affect).

11. Speech Problems

As mentioned earlier, MS causes the CNS to deteriorate, which can lead to speech problems or disorders (known medically as dysarthria). Most commonly, people with MS may slur their speech due to muscle weakness or lack of coordination.

Another common disorder is called scanning dysarthria, which “produces speech in which the normal ‘melody’ or speech pattern is disrupted, with abnormally long pauses between words or individual syllables of words,” says the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. People with MS may also exhibit what’s known as nasal speech, where it sounds like the person speaking has a cold or nasal obstruction.

12. Trouble Swallowing

In the early stages of MS, it may be hard to notice changes in swallowing, but it is quite a common symptom. In fact, the Multiple Sclerosis Society says “at least a third” of those with the disorder experience changes of some degree in swallowing throughout its progression.

In addition to speech changes, as already discussed, the source says swallowing problems can include “problems chewing,” “food sticking in your throat,” “food or drink coming back up,” and “coughing and spluttering during and after eating.” If you notice yourself experiencing any of these issues, be sure to speak with your doctor.

13. Menstrual Changes

As mentioned earlier, MS affects twice as many women as it does men. One of the symptoms that women with MS may experience is the absence of menstrual periods, also known as amenorrhea.

Even if menstrual periods don’t disappear entirely, other changes may occur. Most commonly, MS symptoms seem to worsen before or during a cycle. Several studies have found that 43 to 82-percent of women experience this temporary worsening of symptoms, which is believed to occur due to the “decrease in estrogen levels leading up to menstruation,” says

14. Poor Fine Motor Skills

At the onset of MS, when the autoimmune disorder begins to wear away at the protective layers around the nerve cells, one of the functions affected is a person’s fine motor skills. This can make it challenging to engage in normal daily activities, such as texting, typing, writing, and even buttoning up clothes.

As MS progresses, Women’s Health Magazine says, “It can cause ‘lesions,’ or areas of damage on your nervous system,” and if one of these lesions happens to develop on the back of the brain, “it can hurt your manual dexterity.”

15. Changes to Temperature Sensation and Tolerance

MS can also cause changes to the body’s ability to sense temperature. This tends to happen with the hands, in particular, as a result of nerve damage, which may make it challenging to test the temperature of water (such as in the sink or shower) or quickly gauge outdoor temperature.

Additionally, the autoimmune disease can cause people to become sensitive to heat. says, “If you feel dizzy, faint, or unusually uncomfortable in warm temperatures or when engaging in body warming activities, such as soaking in a hot tub, exercising, or sunbathing, it could be a sign of MS.”

MD, Family Medicine, Internal Medicine

Gerald Morris, MD is a family medicine/internal medicine physician with over 20 years expertise in the medical arena. Dr. Morris has spent time as a clinician, clinical research coordinator/manager, medical writer, and instructor. He is a proponent of patient education as a tool in the diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic medical conditions.



Endometriosis: It’s Time To Change the Pattern of Pain, Stigma and Barriers to Diagnosis And Treatment
By Sarah Seabrook and Alana Cattapan Women

Endometriosis: It’s Time To Change the Pattern of Pain, Stigma and Barriers to Diagnosis And Treatment

Endometriosis is a debilitating disease that affects an estimated one million Canadians. It involves the overgrowth of endometrial tissue (the tissue that lines the uterus), which typically sheds during menstruation and regrows to support reproduction. With endometriosis, the endometrial tissue grows excessively, both inside and outside of the uterus, which can cause pelvic pain, extreme […]

Read More about Endometriosis: It’s Time To Change the Pattern of Pain, Stigma and Barriers to Diagnosis And Treatment

4 min read

New Treatment for Postpartum Depression Offers Hope, but the Stigma Attached to the Condition Still Lingers
By Nicole Lynch and Shannon Pickett Women

New Treatment for Postpartum Depression Offers Hope, but the Stigma Attached to the Condition Still Lingers

Postpartum depression can affect anyone, and it often sneaks in quietly, like a shadow in the corners of a new mother’s life. It presents significant challenges for around 1 in 7 new mothers, affecting their emotional well-being and overall quality of life and that of the newborn. Many – if not most – women experience […]

Read More about New Treatment for Postpartum Depression Offers Hope, but the Stigma Attached to the Condition Still Lingers

6 min read

Endometriosis Afflicts Millions of Women, but Few People Feel Comfortable Talking About It
By Kristina S. Brown Women

Endometriosis Afflicts Millions of Women, but Few People Feel Comfortable Talking About It

Endometriosis causes physical, sexual and emotional pain. About 190 million people around the globe have endometriosis, including one in 10 American women, but there has historically been a deafening silence about the disease and the pervasive impact it can have on a person’s life. While endometriosis is a chronic gynecological illness that can affect anyone […]

Read More about Endometriosis Afflicts Millions of Women, but Few People Feel Comfortable Talking About It

5 min read