I can tell you what the most frequently experienced symptoms are, but with multiple sclerosis, there aren’t any absolutes. A description of common symptoms shouldn’t be viewed as a predictor of an individual’s disease course.
The symptoms can range from slight to severely disabling. They vary according to what parts of the brain or spinal cord are affected and what type of MS the patient has. It’s easier to understand these diverse effects if you know the nature of the illness.
The myelin sheath acts as a sort of protective insulation for the nerves. This sheath is wrapped around the nerve fibers, or axons, which transmit neurochemical messages as electrical impulses between the central nervous system and the rest of the body. In MS, a demyelinating disease, the myelin sheath suffers damage.
“Sclerosis” literally means scarring. Multiple sclerosis refers to the numerous areas where myelin has been damaged or destroyed. As a result, the affected axons may not be able to send messages, preventing the brain from giving its “marching orders” in some locations.
When MS affects the optic nerve, as it often does, the result may be vision problems. These sometimes go away after the person has had the disease for a number of years. Other symptoms may include:
- tingling, numbness or a pins-and-needles sensation in the limbs, torso or face
- muscle weakness
- muscle spasms
- balance, coordination and movement problems
- difficulty walking or standing
- speech problems
- sexual dysfunction
Fortunately, most patients do not get the most severe symptoms, or the chronic or progressively worsening categories of MS. It’s more common to experience the disease in bouts known as exacerbations, in which there may be alternating periods of flare-ups and remission. The remissions can sometimes last for decades. However, MS is an unpredictable disease and there’s no way to know what course it will take.