Early warning signs of multiple sclerosis (MS)

Early warning signs of multiple sclerosis (MS)

Multiple Sclerosis Centre

Early warning signs of multiple sclerosis (MS)

Multiple sclerosis (MS) can inflict serious damage during the first year it manifests. Early detection and treatment is therefore crucial. Here’s how to check out the early warning symptoms.

Identifying the condition

MS, multiple sclerosis, is an inflammatory disease that attacks the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) by damaging the (myelin) sheath surrounding the nerve cells. When this happens multiple areas of scar tissue (sclerosis) develop and slow or block the transmission of nerve impulses in that area.

Attacks can last days, weeks or months and then disappear only to return with a vengeance. These relapses are usually unpredictable and get progressively worse with time. Early detection and treatment is crucial as MS causes more damage during the first year of the disease than later.


There are four types of MS:

  1. Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS). Between 85 and 90% of people with MS fall in this group. As the name indicates, people with RRMS have clearly defined relapse (flare-up) periods followed by partial or complete remission (recovery) periods when the disease stops progressing.
  2. Secondary-progressive MS (SPMS). In SPMS, symptoms progress (worsen) steadily over time despite the occurrence of relapses and remissions.
  3. Primary-progressive MS (PPMS). This rare type of MS is characterised by slowly worsening symptoms without relapses or remissions.
  4. Progressive-relapsing MS (PRMS). An even rarer form of MS characterised by a steadily worsening disease state with acute relapses but no remissions.

Identifying and promptly treating MS in the relapsing-remitting stage is of the utmost importance to try and avoid developing more progressive forms of the illness.

Early warning signs of MS

People with MS tend to have their first symptoms between the ages of 20 and 40, and more women are affected than men. The following are some of the more common, early symptoms:

  • Vision problems such as inflammation of the optic nerve (optic neuritis) is one of the most common, early symptoms of MS. It affects and disrupts a person’s central vision, causing blurring and difficulty seeing or loss of the ability to see contrast or vivid colours. The degeneration of clear sight may be gradual and may also be accompanied by pain when a person looks up or to one side.
  • The two most common warning signs of MS are numbness in the face, arms, legs and fingers and a “pins and needles” tingling sensation.
  • Up to 80% of people in the early stages of MS experience unexplained fatigue and weakness that appear suddenly and may persist for weeks on end before improving.
  • For about 40% of people involuntary muscle spasms, especially in the legs, are early symptoms of MS. Chronic pain in both the legs and the back is also common.
  • Cognitive problems such as attention, thinking and memory problems are early symptoms of MS and will be present in about 50% of people with MS. Difficulties with language and speech may occur later.
  • Up to 80% of people with MS experience bladder problems such as the urgent and frequent need to urinate or the inability to hold in urine or empty the bladder fully as well as bowel problems such as constipation, diarrhoea or loss of bowel control.
  • Mental and emotional problems such as depression, irritability and mood swings usually develop later due to the stress of living with MS and should not be ignored. A condition called “pseudobulbar affect”, bouts of uncontrollable crying and laughing, may also emerge.
  • Sexual arousal begins in the central nervous system, the very place where MS usually strikes and may cause vaginal dryness in women and erection problems in men. Both may have a lower sex drive or have trouble reaching orgasm.
  • MS can also cause other symptoms such as hearing loss, difficulty swallowing, seizures and uncontrollable shaking.

Not everyone with MS will have the same symptoms but if you have experienced any of these symptoms, please have them checked out by your doctor immediately.


Early signs of Multiple Sclerosis. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.healthline.com/health-slideshow/multiple-sclerosis
Early warning symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/multiple-sclerosis/guide/multiple-sclerosis-diagnosis/ multiple-sclerosis-symptoms-types
Multiple Sclerosis. Retrieved from: http://www.cure.co.za/ms.htm
Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Retrieved from: http://www.multiplesclerosis.com/us/treatment.php#a1