Diagnosis & Symptoms
(Content about MS provided by the National MS Society. To learn more about MS visit nationalmssociety.org)
Currently, there are no symptoms, physical findings or laboratory tests that can, by themselves, determine if a person has MS. The doctor will typically use several strategies to decide if a person meets the established criteria to diagnose MS. They must also rule out other possible causes of whatever symptoms the person is having. These strategies include a careful look at the medical history, the neurologic exams that have been performed as well as various tests, MRI and spinal fluid analysis.
The Criteria used to Diagnose MS
In order to make a diagnosis of MS, the physician must:
- Find evidence of damage in at least two separate areas of the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves AND
- Find evidence that the damage occurred at least one month apart AND
- Rule out all other possible diagnoses
What are the symptoms of MS? Some symptoms of MS are much more common than others.
Fatigue – being tired all the time, more than a normal person may typically be.
Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of MS, occurring in about 80% of people. Fatigue can significantly interfere with a person’s ability to function at home and at work, and may be the most prominent symptom in a person who otherwise has minimal activity limitations.
Learn more about Fatigue
Numbness – anywhere on the body, hands, arms, feet, etc.
Numbness of the face, body, or extremities (arms and legs) is one of the most common symptoms of MS, and is often the first symptom experienced by those eventually diagnosed as having MS.
Learn more about Numbness
Walking (Gait), Balance, & Coordination Problems
Problems with gait (difficulty in walking) are among the most common mobility limitations in MS. Gait problems are related to several factors.
Learn more about Gait Problems
Bladder dysfunction, which occurs in at least 80% of people with MS, usually can be managed quite successfully
Learn more about Bladder Dysfunction
Constipation is a particular concern among people living with MS, as is loss of control of the bowels. Diarrhea and other problems of the stomach and bowels also can occur.
Learn more about Bowel Dysfunction
Vision Problems – seeing double or not seeing at all out of one eye.
A vision problem is the first symptom of MS for many people. The sudden onset of double vision, poor contrast, eye pain, or heavy blurring is frankly terrifying-and the knowledge that vision may be compromised can make people with MS anxious about the future.
Learn more about Vision Problems
Dizziness and Vertigo
Dizziness is a common symptom of MS. People with MS may feel off balance or lightheaded. Much less often, they have the sensation that they or their surroundings are spinning, a condition known as vertigo.
Learn more about Dizziness and Vertigo
Sexual problems are often experienced by people with MS, but they are very common in the general population as well. Sexual arousal begins in the central nervous system, as the brain sends messages to the sexual organs along nerves running through the spinal cord. If MS damages these nerve pathways, sexual response—including arousal and orgasm—can be directly affected. Sexual problems also stem from MS symptoms such as fatigue or spasticity, as well as from psychological factors relating to self-esteem and mood changes.
Learn more about Sexual Dysfunction
Pain syndromes are common in MS. In one study, 55% of people with MS had “clinically significant pain” at some time. Almost half were troubled by chronic pain.
Learn more about Pain
Cognitive Dysfunction – example: being able to concentrate or focus
Cognition refers to a range of high-level brain functions, including the ability to learn and remember information: organize, plan, and problem-solve; focus, maintain, and shift attention as necessary; understand and use language; accurately perceive the environment, and perform calculations. Cognitive changes are common in people with MS—approximately 50% of people with MS will develop problems with cognition.
Learn more about Cognitive Dysfunction
Emotional changes are very common in MS—as a reaction to the stresses of living with a chronic, unpredictable illness and because of neurologic and immune changes caused by the disease. Bouts of severe depression (which is different from the healthy grieving that needs to occur in the face of losses and changes caused by MS), mood swings, irritability, and episodes of uncontrollable laughing and crying (called pseudobulbar affect) pose significant challenges for people with MS and their family members.
Learn more about Emotional Changes
Depression is common during the course of multiple sclerosis. In fact, studies have suggested that clinical depression, the severest form of depression, is more frequent among people with MS than it is in the general population or in persons with other chronic, disabling conditions.
Learn more about Depression
Spasticity refers to feelings of stiffness and a wide range of involuntary muscle spasms (sustained muscle contractions or sudden movements). It is one of the more common symptoms of MS. Spasticity may be as mild as the feeling of tightness of muscles or may be so severe as to produce painful, uncontrollable spasms of extremities, usually of the legs. Spasticity may also produce feelings of pain or tightness in and around joints, and can cause low back pain. Although spasticity can occur in any limb, it is much more common in the legs.
Learn more about Spasticity
Less Common Symptoms. These symptoms also occur in MS, but much less frequently.
Speech and voice problems occur in approximately 25-40 percent of people with MS, particularly during relapses or periods of extreme fatigue. The problems are of two types—dysarthria refers to changes in the production of speech, including slurring, unclear articulation of words, and difficulty controlling loudness; dysphonia is the term used for changes in voice quality, including hoarseness, breathiness, nasality, poor control of pitch.
Learn more about Speech Disorders
Swallowing problems—referred to as dysphagia—result from damage to the nerves controlling the many small muscles in the mouth and throat. When dysphagia occurs, food and liquids can pass into the airway and lungs, causing the person to cough and choke. Because particles that remain in the lungs can cause aspiration pneumonia—a serious complication of MS—prompt evaluation and treatment by a speech/language pathologist are essential.
Learn more about Swallowing Problems
Although headache is not a common symptom of MS, some reports suggest that people with MS have an increased incidence of certain types of headache.
Learn more about Headaches
Hearing loss is an uncommon symptom of MS. About 6% of people who have MS complain of impaired hearing. In very rare cases, hearing loss has been reported as the first symptom of the disease. Deafness due to MS is exceedingly rare, and most acute episodes of hearing deficit caused by MS tend to improve.
Learn more about Hearing Loss
Seizures, which are the result of abnormal electrical discharges in an injured or scarred area of the brain, are fairly uncommon among people with MS. Their incidence has been estimated at 2% to 5%, compared to the estimated 3% incidence of seizures in the general population.
Learn more about Seizures
Tremor – hands shaking
Many people with MS experience some degree of tremor, or uncontrollable shaking. It can occur in various parts of the body.
Learn more about Tremor
Respiration / Breathing Problems
Respiration problems occur in people whose chest muscles have been severely weakened by damage to the nerves that control those muscles. Aspiration pneumonia (resulting from the food particles and/or liquids passing into the lungs) can also make breathing more difficult. Breathing problems, which can contribute to MS-related fatigue and interfere with speech and voice production, should be evaluated and treated by nurses or rehabilitation professionals with expertise in respiratory problems.
Learn more about Respiration Problems