Where multiple sclerosis is concerned, diagnosing it is a very strategic process based on a particular roster of symptoms that are quite common among patients. These symptoms and their recurrence are typically the reason a patient goes to the doctor, concerned with a diagnosis of MS to start with.
Common symptoms of MS
Of course, knowing the initial typical symptoms of the disease makes it easier to determine if and when it’s time to see a doctor, since these are the usual suspects.
The more common symptoms include:
- Weakness of limbs
- Numbness of limbs
- Vision issues, including painful eye movement
- Bowel and bladder dysfunction
Most MS patients become quite familiar with these symptoms, as they are common and recurring with the disease. However, while less common, there are plenty of other sensations and symptoms described by multiple unrelated patients that then link back to the disease. Even if they don’t seem as if they are part of dealing with MS at first, a broader look to determine that so many others have suffered these signs can help identify that a new patient actually has MS.
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the nervous system, so it would follow that some of the sensations felt would be related to that damage. In some patients, this causes a variety of pain to strike the muscles around the ribs, which leads to the sensation of having the ribs and lungs crushed. It could also manifest and intense pressure, burning, tingling, or numbness in the same area, depending on the type of damage to the nerves and the patient’s own sensory dynamic.
This sensation has actually been given a name because, while it’s not among the most common symptom of MS, it’s a very recognizable one. The sign references the electrical current that shoots through the arms or down the spine when a multiple sclerosis patient bends their head forward. In some cases, this electrical pulse seems to occur frequently with various head movements, which can be extremely uncomfortable or painful.
Some people with MS experience a sensation during a relapse that feels as though they have just stepped out of a swimming pool. The damaged nerves signal the feeling of being soaking wet to the brain, but when they reach down to touch the spot that “feels” wet, they find it dry. Sometimes, the variance in what the limb feels and what the fingers touch becomes confusing to the point of aggravation. Other strange and unexpected sensations may also occur, such as the feeling of vibration, something dripping on the skin, or an insect crawling over the skin.
While headaches were commonly linked to MS, migraines were not. However, recent studies show that the occurrence of migraines is twice as often as in a person who doesn’t suffer from the disease. Often, the severity of those migraines is also increased beyond that of the standard population.
Dizziness has long been recognized as a common symptom among MS patients. However, vertigo is much less common. At the same time, it’s related, based on balance and issues with dizziness related to damage suffered in the brain, including lesions. Vertigo, or the sensation of spinning or the room spinning around an individual, can easily lead to falls, tripping, loss of balance, difficulty getting bearings, and other problems with mobility.
This is not especially common. However, damage to or loss of the myelin in the auditory nerve pathway could lead to hearing loss. Because this is such an unusual symptom, it’s important for an MS patient to first seek the care and advice of an ENT (ear, nose, and throat specialist) in order to rule out other, more common causes of the loss of hearing. It may only be something temporary, or may need to be treated another way to reverse damage, rather than being a permanent problem symptomatic of MS.
Because MS damages nerves without regard for what they do, the disease can also cause dysphagia, or trouble swallowing. This is due to damage in the nerves that control the muscles in the throat. While this is less common in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, it does happen more often in more advanced stages and can be an early sign as well. This symptom also causes problems with eating and drinking, since it can lead to choking and even be life threatening.
Typically, when discussing weakness related to MS, the conversation revolves around limbs. However, the central nervous system is also responsible for the muscles that are autonomic – that don’t require conscious effort to move. If the nerves controlling these are damaged, it could weaken their response. That include the muscles around the lungs that help with breathing. This can make things extremely difficult, since it reduces the ability to exhale specifically, which can lead to fatigue (due to the extra effort and lack of ability to expel carbon dioxide) as well as make it hard to carry a regular conversation without becoming breathless or weak in other areas of the body. Respiratory and physical therapy are options to assist with this particular symptom, helping to strengthen those muscles and minimize the amount of strength lost during a relapse.