Multiple sclerosis is very individual, with no two experiences the same. Symptoms change, sometimes from morning to afternoon. They can come and go, while others may linger or worsen over time. Most are treatable and there are many practical ways to help manage them.
MS signs and symptoms
What are symptoms of MS?
They can include:
- strange skin sensations (including numbness, tingling, pins and needles, a crawling feeling)
- balance and coordination problems
- vision problems
- walking difficulties
- thinking and memory difficulties
- muscle spasms and stiffness
- bladder and bowel problems
- temperature sensitivity
- low mood and emotional problems (including depression and anxiety)
- sexual issues
- sleep problems
- speech and swallowing problems
- hearing difficulties.
The list of possible symptoms is long but it’s unlikely you'll experience them all. Some may only experience a few. The way symptoms affect you can vary widely, from almost unnoticeable to very disabling. They are often invisible, so those around you won't always know if a symptom is troubling you.
Do read on if you want to explore them in more detail. Note that none of these symptoms are unique to MS, which is why it can be hard to diagnose multiple sclerosis. If you are worried, do call your GP.
Strange skin sensations
Known as altered sensations these can vary widely. You may feel pins and needles, tingling, numbness, burning, even a crawling feeling like insects moving around on your skin. Here Cara, Helena and Caroline describe their strange skin sensations.
Balance and coordination
There are a number ways that MS may cause eyesight problems. Optic neuritis usually affects just one eye. You may experience blurry, dim or faded vision as well as temporary blind spots. It is often painful moving your eyes. Other issues with vision include double vision or eye tremors known as nystagmus. For an insight into some of these eyesight issues, watch Deb and Nathalie explain their symptoms.
Many MS symptoms can eventually affect your walking and mobility. General weakness and fatigue can make walking harder, while muscle spasticity and foot drop can make you stumble or feel unsteady. MS can also affect your balance and coordination and you may notice this when walking in particular. Here Daf Wyn and Emily explain some of their early experiences.
Thinking and memory
Problems with thinking and memory or cognition include forgetfulness or finding it hard to focus and concentrate. Other symptoms include impulsiveness, trouble making decisions, or visuospatial problems where you bump into things or have trouble finding your way around. You may find it helpful to watch Helena's experiences.
Bladder and bowel
Problems with your bladder and bowel are quite common in MS. You may find it harder to control when you need the toilet. Or you may wake more at night to wee. These symptoms can be caused by nerve damage or another MS symptom, for example if you are less active due to mobility issues, this can lead to constipation. MS can also make you more prone to urinary tract infections.
Muscle spasms and stiffness
Both affect your muscles and make it difficult to move. Spasms happen out of the blue where you feel a sudden tightness and your muscle contracts. They often affect the arms, legs and torso. Stiffness or spasticity as it is known medically, also affects your limbs, making them feel heavy and awkward to move.
Mood and emotions
You may find your mood or emotions are affected by MS. The emotional strain of living with a long-term condition is one reason, but another is due to nerve damage in the brain. These explain why you may experience stress and possibly anxiety or depression. Sometimes, people with MS can find themselves expressing emotion in an unusual way, like laughing or crying at inappropriate times. This is called pseudobulbar affect and is a rarer symptom of multiple sclerosis.
There are several MS symptoms that can cause pain. Some pain is caused by nerve damage like pricking or stabbing skin sensations or shooting pains in your neck and back known as Lhermitte's sign. You may experience an uncomfortable squeezing sensation known as the MS hug. If you have pain on the side of your face or something that feels like earache or toothache, we call this trigeminal neuralgia. Other pain can come from muscle spasms or if your MS impacts your posture.
Both men and women can sometimes find that MS affects their enjoyment of sex. There a few reasons why this can happen. Nerve damage that affects the genital area can cause unwelcome skin sensations like numbness or pain. It can also make it more difficult to get and maintain an erection. Here you can explore other factors like low self-esteem and mood that can interfere with relationships and reduce libido.
There are a number of ways that MS can disrupt sleep. You may find it difficult to drop off or stay asleep. You may wake not feeling refreshed. Some sleep issues are caused by nerve damage, but other MS symptoms interfere with sleep like spasms, pain or nocturia – when you need to wee a lot at the night. Poor sleep can affect fatigue as well as thought processes and memory.
Speech and swallow
Nerve damage that affects areas of the brain responsible for language and coordinating the mouth and throat muscles may lead to problems with speaking. You may stumble over words, or have trouble remembering the right word. Weakness and lack of coordination in the mouth, tongue and throat muscles can make swallowing difficult or less effective, leading to a risk of choking.
Occasionally, people with MS develop hearing problems when there is nothing wrong with their ears. You may experience tinnitus, sudden hearing loss or become more sensitive to noise. If it's noisy, you may find it difficult to follow a conversation.
Got a question about MS?
Our MS helpline is available weekdays (except bank holidays) from 9:00 till 17:00.
It’s important to flag any new symptom with your MS nurse or GP so you can benefit from the help that’s out there. If you find it hard to share the more intimate symptoms like bladder, bowel and sexual problems, remember they are common and treatable. Please don’t keep them bottled up.
Although MS can sometimes feel all consuming, do keep in mind that not everything is connected to your MS.
Managing multiple sclerosis
Knowing what specialist support is available, is hugely helpful. You may not need this level of support now or even in the years to come, but it is worth reading up on. We know there are waiting lists to navigate, so asking your MS nurse or GP for a referral when you first need it can get the wheels in motion.
MS spans many areas of healthcare including:
speech and language therapy
Click to learn more.
Why do symptoms vary?
Watch MS nurse, Simon Ghafur, and Consultant neurologist, Ben Turner, explain why different people experience different symptoms.