Multiple Sclerosis is a condition of the central nervous system, so when messages can’t get through from the center of operations in the brain to the operating parts of the body there will be some obvious consequences, or maybe the brain itself won’t work quite as it used to.
Many symptoms are visible to other people, but some are felt internally long before anyone else notices anything unusual – no one can tell if you are suffering from pins and needles in your hands and feet unless you tell them.
Here are some of the most common physical symptoms: Weakness in the arms or legs (seldom both at once) is a characteristic early symptom and can sometimes be hard to identify when combined with a sense of lethargy and any of the following symptoms:
Coordination will soon be a problem and is probably the biggest issue in our technical age. If you can’t read your own handwriting or even use a keyboard, plans to study or earn a living will have to be adapted.
Balance is a clear giveaway. People notice an awkward gait, stagger or limp, long before anyone falls over in the street or comes off their bike.
Vision problems are a common symptom of MS. It even has its own special name – “optic neuritis” – because sometimes symptoms affecting the optic nerve are the only problem anyone has. It is frightening at the time and gets worse for several days before it gets better, but in most cases is almost totally cleared after a few weeks, so normal life can re-start.
Incontinence is an embarrassing problem that affects most people who have MS at some time. The treacherous nerves send messages that cause an irresistible urge to “go”, and then fail to ensure the bladder is fully empty when it gets the chance.
“‘Flu without having ‘flu” is what I call the disorientation, weariness, aches and pains that can accompany an MS attack. Just as with an attack of winter influenza, all the patient wants to do is go to bed and try to sleep it off.
Sexual problems are commonly reported amongst both men and women. This is hardly surprising given the truth of the axiom, “the biggest sex organ is the brain”, and the importance of the central nervous system to human sexuality.
Fatigue along with its partners, depression and loss of motivation, is one of the most common and damaging effects. Outwardly invisible, it probably leads to as many cases of early retirement as any of the obvious physical handicaps.
Recycled symptoms are what I call the return of symptoms someone with MS had some time in the past, and then got over. Even after recovery (which usually occurs within 4-6 weeks), if another symptom does develop in a different part of the body, which can be years later, an earlier symptom will often reappear, if only in a milder form.
There is a long list of other possible physical symptoms, including “seizure”, where a sudden short-term collapse looks rather like an epileptic fit, but everyone with MS will come to
learn their own typical features.
The effect of MS on the way somebody thinks is different from other symptoms, even though it has the same physical cause.
If the messages passing from the brain to the rest of the body via the central nervous system are distorted by MS, it is hardly surprising that the way the brain works is affected as well.
Even if emotional stress has not actually caused the symptoms of MS, the tricks the disease plays on the body’s internal messaging systems can take patients by surprise.
Things to watch out for (and for families and carers to understand) include:
Memory lapses, which can look like lazy thinking, carelessness, or just plain rudeness. You might totally forget the name of someone you know perfectly well.
Euphoria means an “exaggerated and unrealistic state of happiness”. This may not sound too bad, but it can be a problem if it means uncontrollable giggling when nothing funny has happened. Like being drunk, it’s quite fun at the time, but is frustrating for outsiders who can see very well that there is nothing to laugh at, and is potentially disastrous when talking to employers or people in authority.
Depression is at least as bad for people with MS as for people who are otherwise healthy, although it’s impossible to tell how far the bad news about having MS is a cause in itself. Is it a cause or is it an effect? Or both? In any case, depression amongst MS sufferers is well above the average for the population as a whole.
Irrational mood swings are a feature of MS that combine both euphoria and depression. The families of people with MS are often baffled by the sudden and unpredictable lurches from highs to lows.