Early symptoms of MS


It's hard to make a catch-all list of early MS symptoms because they vary a lot. But there are a few more common first signs, which we focus on here along with some firsthand experiences.

Remember that some of these symptoms are pretty general and none are exclusive to MS. They may be a sign of something else. If you have any concerns, do get checked out by your GP.  

What early signs of MS can feel like

Let's focus on these symptoms:  

  • fatigue
  • stumbling
  • strange skin sensations
  • sudden eyesight problems
  • slowed thinking.

They are not the only symptoms of MS, but they do crop up more often than others at this stage.

A list only goes so far though.

To get an idea of what early MS can feel like, it's useful to hear from those with lived experience. It's why we've put together a selection of short videos clips from our interviews and podcasts. As you watch, you'll begin to see how individual symptoms vary for different people, with no two experiences the same. We've tried to group them by symptom, but it's rarely so simple with MS.

Fatigue

This is not the type of 'tired' that just anyone can feel. It's a complete mental and physical exhaustion that's completely out of sync with what's going on in your life. Many people with MS experience fatigue, and their experiences can vary from person to person, day to day, morning to afternoon.

Caroline found herself having to cope with sheer exhaustion without any obvious explanation:

Caroline explains how her MS fatigue feels

Stumbling

Walking difficulties are common for people with MS and often begin with stumbling. You can find your balance and co-ordination are also affected.

Like most symptoms, it can vary a lot. You may feel unsteady, have difficulties turning and need to grab something for support. Some find their foot dragging, a symptom that's called foot drop.

Both Daf Wyn and Emily found that stumbling and walking difficulties were only part of their MS story. Daf Wyn noticed he kept tripping himself up for no apparent reason. Looking back, this was one of his first symptoms. He later experienced bladder issues, lightheadedness, a spinning feeling when crossing the road, slurred speech and the feeling of pressure like his head was clamped in a vice. Emily picks up with her experiences. She singles out numb feet, heavy legs, unsteadiness and difficulties walking as her most significant MS symptom:

Daf Wyn and Emily experienced stumbling, unsteadiness and other MS symptoms

Strange skin sensations

These must count as one of the more bizarre symptoms of MS, with some describing a feeling like crawling insects. 

Between them, Cara, Helena and Caroline felt a real mix of odd skin sensations, which are also known as altered sensations. Cara's symptoms started when she woke with a numb foot, a feeling that spread up her leg. Then came a painful 'electric shock' sensation in her spine, which is called Lhermitte's sign. For Helena, it started with pins and needles. Then numbness, burning, buzzing sensations, cold water feeling hot and vice versa. Caroline also experienced a burning sensation and numbness, which went on for years. She was later diagnosed with clinically isolated syndrome after falling over. Fatigue, pain in her arms and headaches followed:

Cara, Helena and Caroline talk about their odd skin sensations

Sudden eyesight problems

Many people with MS have problems with their eyesight with one in five experiencing optic neuritis as a first sign. Other visual problems include double vision (diplopia) and involuntary eye movement (nystagmus)

Deb talks through her various eye problems before getting her MS diagnosis. They include blurry and double vision, a temporary blind spot and colour blindness, and how one pupil turned inwards towards her nose. She is followed by Nathalie, whose visual problems started with eye pain. Then came the sudden realisation that she could only see out of one eye:

Deb and Nathalie experienced eyesight problems before their MS diagnosis

Slowed thinking

Thinking and memory problems are common and affect about half of those with MS. They are often referred to as cognitive problems. You may find yourself struggling to remember things or stay focused, make plans and decisions, understand things and concentrate. People with MS sometimes call this cog fog.

Helena found reading became more difficult, often getting to the end of the page with no idea what she'd just read. She also found herself forgetting words during conversations:

Helena details how MS slowed her thinking

What next?

For more information about MS symptoms and where to go for help, you could try these:

Other MS symptoms

Read more about other common MS symptoms, including:

  • balance and coordination
  • bladder and bowel
  • thinking and memory
  • hearing 
  • temperature sensitivity 
  • mood and emotions 
  • pain
  • sexual issues
  • sleep
  • speech and swallowing
  • vision
  • walking difficulties.

Speak to our helpline

We are here to answer your questions about MS. You can contact our helpline weekdays between 10 am and 4 pm (except bank holidays). Do get in touch.

Speak to your GP

If you are worried about your symptoms, It is worth making an appointment to see you GP. It may help to check our Worried you have MS page too. There's tips for preparing for doctor's appointments and coping with uncertainty about your health.

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