About one million people in the U.S. have multiple sclerosis, Healthline¹ reports, and another 200 people are diagnosed every week. Often known as MS, this disease can affect people of all backgrounds and any age.
If you or a loved one has MS, it’s important to understand what the disease is, what its symptoms are, and how it’s treated. Multiple sclerosis can be a difficult disease to live with, but understanding this disease can improve your quality of life.
Early Warning Signs of Multiple Sclerosis
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS)² writes that multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the body’s myelin, the protective sheath that covers nerve fibers. This can cause problems with nerve functioning and eventually lead to permanent nerve damage.
One of the most common early symptoms of multiple sclerosis is a vision problem, NMSS³ reports. There are several vision problems associated with MS, but most of them have a good prognosis for recovery.
In some cases, vision problems are caused by optic neuritis, which is the inflammation of the optic nerve. This can lead to blurred vision, dark spots, or blindness in one eye. Fortunately, it’s treatable, and most people make a full recovery. People with MS also may experience diplopia, or double vision, which is caused by weakness or lack of coordination in the muscles around the eyes.
Numbness or tingling in the arms, legs, or face is another common early sign of MS. The numbness usually begins as a mild issue but can worsen until it affects functioning. Some people with MS have difficulty walking because of numbness in their feet, while others may have trouble writing or holding objects because of numbness in their hands.
Everyone with MS experiences the disorder differently, so no two people will develop the exact same symptoms in the same order. Other early signs of MS include the following:
- Muscle spasms
- Dizziness or difficulty balancing
- Bladder problems
- Brain fog or cognitive issues
How Is Multiple Sclerosis Diagnosed?
MS can be tough to diagnose, so many people go years with a misdiagnosis or without a diagnosis at all. There isn’t one test that can confirm multiple sclerosis, so doctors usually begin by performing tests to rule out other health conditions. Blood tests can check for issues like Lyme disease, vitamin deficiencies, or other autoimmune diseases that may cause similar symptoms to MS.
Your doctor may order an MRI, which will create a detailed image of your brain and spinal cord. If you have MS, your MRI may show evidence of demyelination, which Healthline⁴ reports is a sign that your immune system is attacking the myelin around your nerve fibers.
A lumbar puncture is also sometimes necessary to diagnose multiple sclerosis. During this procedure, your doctor will collect cerebrospinal fluid from your spine by inserting a hollow needle into your lower back. Then, the cerebrospinal fluid will be tested for elevated levels of IgG antibodies, which is a common sign of MS. A high white blood cell count in the cerebrospinal fluid can be evidence of MS, too.
The last test your doctor may perform to diagnose MS is an evoked potential test. This test measures the electrical activity in your brain and can show impaired transmission along your optic nerve, a problem that usually develops in people with MS.
If your doctor rules out all other medical conditions and finds evidence of damage in more than one area of your central nervous system, you’ll be diagnosed with MS. After your diagnosis, you and your doctor will work together to find the most effective treatments for your symptoms.
How Is Multiple Sclerosis Treated?
There isn’t a cure for MS, so most treatments focus on preventing flare-ups and managing symptoms. Disease-modifying drugs, or DMDs, can make relapses less frequent and can slow down the development of plaques and lesions in the brain and spinal cord according to MultipleSclerosis.net⁵. DMDs can be taken orally, by injection, or by IV.
Most MS symptoms are caused by inflammation, so doctors often prescribe corticosteroids during flare-ups. If your body can’t tolerate corticosteroids, your doctor may recommend plasma exchange instead. During this treatment, your plasma is separated from the rest of your blood cells, mixed with a protein fluid, and returned to your body.
Other medications can help with symptoms like fatigue, muscle spasms, and bladder problems. Physical therapy can also be great for treating MS, especially for those who have chronic pain and muscle control issues. During physical therapy, you’ll learn how to strengthen your muscles to complete your daily tasks without pain.
Many people with MS benefit from alternative therapies alongside their conventional treatments. Some of the most common alternative treatments for MS include the following:
- Herbal supplements
Multiple sclerosis flare-ups can be triggered by stress, so treatments that help with stress management, such as massage and meditation, can be particularly valuable. However, you should always speak to your doctor before trying an alternative therapy, and you shouldn’t abandon your conventional treatments unless your doctor recommends it.
Multiple sclerosis can be physically and mentally tough to deal with, but most people with the disease find effective treatments that help them live normal lives. A combination of medication and lifestyle changes should reduce your flare-ups, slow the progression of the disease, and improve your quality of life.
Like anything, it’s always a good idea to be aware of the latest research. We recommend comparing at least 3 or 4 options before making a final decision. Doing a search online is typically the quickest, most thorough way to discover all the pros and cons you need to keep in mind.