Signs and symptoms of multiple sclerosis

August 28, 2019 Swedish Neuroscience Team

[4 MIN READ]

Actress Selma Blair’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) was years in the making, while she struggled with the subtle symptoms of unrecognized MS flare-ups and their effects on her life. Blair, who’s known for roles in Legally Blonde and Cruel Intentions, discussed in a Vanity Fair interview that she’s been dealing with the symptoms of MS for the past 15 years. She says when the diagnosis finally came, it brought with it a sense of relief that she finally had a name for her condition.

Her experience is not an unusual one.

There are currently an estimated 1 million people living with MS, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. No one knows what causes this potentially disabling disease, which affects your central nervous system – your spinal cord, optic nerves and brain. Researchers continue to look for a cure.

What is MS?

MS is considered an autoimmune disease because it causes the antibodies produced by your immune system to attack your body instead of bacteria and viruses like it should when it’s functioning properly. The result is damage to nerve cells and to the material that encases and protects your nerve cells – known as the myelin sheath.  

When your myelin sheath and/or nerve cells are damaged, the messages your central nervous system sends to the rest of your body are delayed or blocked from reaching their destination. This affects many key aspects of your health, including your ability to think and move.

MS causes lesions in the brain and spinal cord that interrupt the signals they send. It affects aspects of life that the brain and spinal cord regulate.

"MS causes lesions in the brain and spinal cord that interrupt the signals they send. It affects aspects of life that the brain and spinal cord regulate," said Dr. Angeli Mayadev, a Physiatrist who treats MS at Swedish.

The symptoms of the most common subtype, Relapsing Remitting MS (RRMS), typically come and go with symptom-free periods that span days, weeks or even months. Relapses, known as exacerbations, can come without warning. Depending on the type of MS, you may develop new or experience worsening symptoms as your disease progresses.

Signs of MS

MS tends to affect more women than men. Most people experience their first symptoms between the ages of 20 and 40, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Blurred vision, eye pain, partial color blindness and loss of vision are most often the first signs of MS. Other common symptoms include:

  • Difficulties with coordination and balance
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness, prickling, feeling of pins and needles in your extremities
  • Red-green color distortion
  • Inability to concentrate or remain focused for extended periods of time
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Tremors, seizures or uncontrollable spasms
  • Extreme fatigue

The list is a little intimidating, but not all people with MS experience every symptom. The effects of MS vary widely, depending on the severity and location of the damaged nerves.

Increasing awareness

There is currently no cure for MS. Treatment is “best managed by a team because the disease affects more than one system,” said Dr. Mayadev about the multidisciplinary approach she favors. It typically includes medication, physical and occupational therapy, strength training, and mental health care – all focused on alleviating symptoms and slowing the disease’s progression.

With MS, life expectancy is not significantly affected but quality of life could be. We treat the disease and we treat its symptoms to help our patients live active fulfilling lives.

“We try to maximize whatever strength they have,” said Dr. Mayadev of her MS patients’ treatment. “With MS, life expectancy is not significantly affected but quality of life could be. We treat the disease and we treat its symptoms to help our patients live active fulfilling lives.”

Blair’s openness about her diagnosis and the challenges it brings to her life is helping raise awareness and bring attention to this important issue. Her Instagram post talking about her diagnosis reflects the hope she and other MS sufferers experience as they deal with this debilitating disease.

“I am disabled. I fall sometimes. I drop things. My memory is foggy. And my left side is asking for directions from a broken GPS. But we’re doing it,” she wrote. “I have probably had this disease (MS) for 15 years at least. And I am relieved to at least know. And share.”

Find a doctor

If you recognize some of the signs and symptoms of MS, don’t wait. The team at Swedish offers expert diagnosis and treatment options that will help manage your disease and improve your quality of life. Search for a doctor you can trust in our provider directory.

Related resources

Swedish Multiple Sclerosis Center

Multiple Sclerosis Center serves a region in need

How to promote healthy lifestyles among MS patients

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

From deep brain stimulation to focused ultrasound to pediatric neurology, The Swedish Neuroscience Team is recognized as national experts to help people address a wide array of neurological conditions. Our goal is to provide useful and helpful advice and tips on non-surgical and surgical options to treat any disease of the mind.

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