While multiple sclerosis (MS) is not a particularly common disease, it’s not rare, either. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, close to one million people are currently living with MS in the United States. The worldwide estimate of those living with MS is 2.8 million, according to the Atlas of MS, and the global rate of increase means that one person is diagnosed with MS somewhere in the world every five minutes.
One encouraging development in MS care is that the time it takes to get a diagnosis is shrinking, though it can still be challenging, says Scott Ireland Otallah, MD, a neurologist who specializes in multiple sclerosis at Atrium Health at Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“Part of that is because many of the symptoms of MS are found in other medical conditions, some of which are much more common,” Dr. Otallah says.
So while no one symptom should trigger an immediate concern that you have MS, it’s good to know the signs and symptoms so that if you have them — and especially if they persist — you can get them checked out by a doctor.
Could It Be MS?
While some symptoms of MS are very common, there’s no typical pattern of symptoms that applies to everyone.
“Any part of the central nervous system [the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerve] can have a demyelinating lesion, and so you can have almost any symptom that could potentially be perceived as neurologic; that’s part of what can make diagnosis tricky,” says Otallah.
For one person, the first symptom of MS may be numbness and tingling, while for another it’s dizziness, and for yet another it’s crushing fatigue.
The key to determining whether a symptom might be due to MS is how it develops, says Tanuja Chitnis, MD, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Mass General Brigham Pediatric MS Center at Mass General Hospital for Children, both in Boston.
MS symptoms develop slowly over the course of several hours or days, Dr. Chitnis says, and can last for several days to a few weeks.
Symptoms that come and go within minutes or persist for only a short time — but not for hours — are much less likely to be caused by MS.
MS symptoms may also worsen in hot temperatures or when a person heats up from exercise or a hot bath, for example. The tendency for MS symptoms to worsen with heat is called Uhthoff phenomenon.
MS attacks, or flares, are also likely to cause lasting neurological deficits, or abnormalities in the function of a body part or area, even after the worst of the symptoms have subsided.