4 Early Warning Signs of MS You Shouldn’t Ignore

How doctors puzzle out an MS diagnosis

close up illustration on nerves firing

If you’re experiencing blurred vision, numbness, weakness or dizziness, don’t panic. These are fairly vague symptoms and don’t necessarily signal a serious illness. But, taken together, they are potential early signs of multiple sclerosis (MS). So you don’t want to let too much time slip by before seeing a doctor.

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Your chances of getting MS are relatively slim — only about one person in 1,000 develops it. The serious disease affects the central nervous system, disrupting communication between the brain and other parts of the body.

However, MS affects each person differently and can range from mild to severe. That’s why the diagnosis is often difficult to pin down.

“Not everyone with MS exhibits the same symptoms,” explains neurologist Robert Bermel, MD. “And there is no standard test to confirm an MS diagnosis.”

That being said, certain symptoms should prompt you to seek help. Because if you do have MS, getting treatment sooner rather than later can help you manage your symptoms better and may even slow the progression of the disease.

What are the early signs of MS?

Dr. Bermel lists four potential early signs of MS that shouldn’t be ignored:

  1. Painful vision loss in one eye. Vision problems can have many causes. But if you have painful vision loss or blurring in one eye that lasts for more than a couple of days, get it checked out. “Patients describe it as ‘looking through smudged sunglasses’ on one side,” Dr. Bermel says.
  2. Facial paralysis. When one side of your face becomes temporarily paralyzed or appears to droop, it’s called facial paralysis or facial palsy. And it needs attention.
  3. Persistent limb weakness or numbness. We’ve all experienced numbness or tingling in an arm or leg after sleeping in an awkward position or sitting the wrong way too long. If the sensation eases over an hour or so, it’s probably nothing to worry about. But if it persists for more than a day or two, don’t ignore it.
  4. Severe, ongoing dizziness. Dizziness has many causes, but MS-induced dizziness is typically more severe and lasts for at least two days. “With MS, dizzy spells can cause you to have trouble walking down a hallway, for example, because your sense of equilibrium is so off,” he explains.

Are symptoms caused by MS or something else?

“One of the things doctors look for with MS is that all these symptoms last more than a couple of days,” Dr. Bermel says.

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In addition, the timing of symptoms — how quickly they appear — can help your doctor determine whether MS or something else is the cause.

For example, the early symptoms of MS are subacute, meaning they don’t come on as suddenly as stroke symptoms, and they don’t slowly worsen over time.

“MS is somewhere in the middle — the symptoms can worsen over hours or days,” he says.

Are there other clues to an MS diagnosis?

Only a small percentage of the many people who see doctors for numbness, tingling and musculoskeletal issues will actually have MS, notes Dr. Bermel.

Thus, doctors must weigh the need to screen for MS against concerns about unnecessarily alarming the patient.

The frequency of recent doctor visits helps them add one more piece to the MS puzzle. 

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Emerging research shows that people use more medical care in the months leading up to an MS diagnosis. The visits are typically for non-specific symptoms, such as musculoskeletal symptoms/sensations, psychiatric symptoms and even bladder symptoms.

But researchers need to learn more before they can conclusively link these non-specific symptoms to MS.

“We’re trying to identify those with MS as early as possible in the disease process, because we know they will really benefit from early treatment,” he says.

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