Multiple sclerosis (MS) can be tricky to diagnose. There's no one single test for the condition, which means that: 'the diagnosis can be missed, delayed or even incorrect,' according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. But, knowledge is power. Knowing the signs of multiple sclerosis in women can help make you that much more prepared to take action if you notice something seems off down the line.
What is multiple sclerosis again?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system, which affects the brain and spinal cord. MS basically blocks the messages that flow between the brain and the body, often resulting in vision problems, muscle weakness, coordination issues, numbness, and thinking or memory problems, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Actress Selma Blair, who shared her diagnosis in 2018, is just one 2.3 million people worldwide who suffer from MS, according to the National MS Society. There's no cure for the disease, though treatments and disease-modifying therapies can slow or delay the progression of symptoms.
While 15 years seems like a long time to go undiagnosed, it's entirely possible—that's because MS symptoms can be hard to nail down.
In fact, it's not uncommon for doctors to misdiagnose patients, ultimately delaying their treatment, says Dr Amit Sachdev, an assistant professor and director of the Division of Neuromuscular Medicine at Michigan State University.
If you're experiencing any of these concerning multiple sclerosis symptoms, check in with your doctor to figure out what's up. They could all, of course, be down to myriad other things, so stay calm and seek medical advice.
1. Your foot keeps falling asleep
Normally, you only get that prickly pins-and-needles feeling when you've put pressure on your leg for too long, temporarily cutting off blood flow.
But if you find that your arms, legs, hands, or feet feel numb, burning, or tingly out of nowhere, that can be a sign of MS, says Dr Clifford Segil, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
2. You're tired all the time
You’re inevitably going to come across those days when you just can’t even. But sudden spells of severe exhaustion that last for weeks and mess with your ability to function normally on a day-to-day basis might be an indication that MS is destroying the nerves and fibres in your spinal column.
'People with MS describe their fatigue as overwhelming, making even simple tasks difficult,' says Kathleen Costello, a nurse practitioner and associate vice president of healthcare access at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
'It is often out of proportion with your activity, is not relieved by sleep, and is worsened if you become overheated.
3. You stop getting your period
Any illness that affects your immune system, including multiple sclerosis, may cause amenorrhea, or the loss of your period, says Segil.
Missing a period every so often is not a big deal—everything from stress to traveling to the flu can temporarily throw your reproductive system out of sync—but if your period is gone for more than three months in a row or your cycle becomes erratic, it's time to talk to a doctor.
4. You have trouble swallowing or speaking sometimes
Issues with speech and swallowing typically go hand-in-hand (their medical names are actually dysphagia and dysarthrias), per the National MS Society.
As far as speech goes, damaged areas of the brain can affect speech patterns, causing slurring or a more nasal sound to your voice.
Your brain is also largely in control of swallowing (tbh, your brain is in control of pretty much everything)—and yeah, not being able to swallow properly should definitely raise a red flag.
5. You've been especially clumsy lately
'People often think they just have bad balance but having weakness in one or both of your limbs could be a sign that something is wrong with your motor nerves,' Segil says.
So if you find yourself tripping, stumbling, feeling unsteady, or falling frequently for no reason, get to a doctor ASAP.
6. You're having trouble multitasking, or you've been really moody
About 60% or more of those diagnosed with MS experience some form of cognitive or emotional distress, according to Kathleen Costello, a nurse practitioner and associate vice president of healthcare access at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Those with MS can suffer from impaired recall, difficulty with depression, irritability, sudden mood swings, and uncontrollable fits of crying or laughter.
7. You're feeling some pretty weird sensations
Sensory issues are a strange but common sign of multiple sclerosis. 'My patients often say that their body just feels different, on a sensory level, from one part to the next,' Segil explains.
'For example, when they put on their shirt, it feels differently sliding over their chest than it does going over their stomach.'
Half of people diagnosed with MS also have chronic pain, which is usually coupled with involuntary spasms, inexplicable weakness, or stiffness in the muscles.
'It is often described as heaviness or like the limb is worn out,' says Costello. The legs are usually the first extremity to bear the brunt of the muscular woes, but the back is also a typical problem area.
8. You can't distinguish between colours anymore
If you previously had a good eye for colour, don't brush this off, Segil says. 'It's called optic neuritis and it happens because of a loss of insulation around the optic nerves in the brain; it's one of the primary symptoms of multiple sclerosis,' he explains.
But it's not just colour-related: MS can also manifest as partial blindness, colour blindness, blind spots, or blindness only in one eye. 'Some people describe this as looking through a smudged contact lens, or looking through a screen or through water,' says Costello. 'It may also be associated with pain or a pulling sensation during eye movement.'
The onset of MS-related vision problems is usually slow, since the deterioration of the eyes happens over time. Optic neuritis can also happen on its own—without necessarily being associated with multiple sclerosis—as a result of an infection, a vitamin deficiency, or other autoimmune diseases.
9. You're forgetting everything
If you've forgotten your bestie's birthday, lost your keys five times in one week, and rewashed the same clean laundry twice, you might worry you have early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
The good news is that Alzheimer's is extremely rare in young women. The bad news is that problems with short-term memory or other cognitive issues can be MS symptoms in women.
10. You're always drinking water, but you rarely have to wee
Being able to hydrate all day without visiting the ladies room may seem like an awesome talent, but it's not a good thing. It's a hallmark of multiple sclerosis, especially if you're stopped up for more than 24 hours, Segil says.
However, any big change in urinary frequency can be an MS symptom in women, and is often how people end up getting diagnosed, he adds. Sometimes it's the opposite, and you have to pee all the time.
'Many people with MS report a sense of ‘gotta-go’ bladder urgency or may need to use the restroom more frequently,' says Costello. 'Sometimes they are even awakened during the night by the urge to urinate.'
Dysfunctional bathroom habits and bowel problems occur in about 80 percent of people with MS, and the inability to hold in your wee is often accompanied by constipation, diarrhoea, and uncontrollable bowel movements as well.
11. You randomly get dizzy or nauseated
One of the earliest MS symptoms in women is extreme dizziness or vertigo caused by nerve damage that messes with your motor, sensory, and coordination systems, making you feel disoriented, unsteady, dizzy, or even nauseated.
12. You're having trouble texting or typing
'One of the first things we often see in MS patients is the inability to text, type, use a cellphone or tablet, or do other things that require fine motor control,' Segil says. As multiple sclerosis advances, it can cause 'lesions,' or areas of damage on your nervous system.
If you get a lesion on the back region of the brain, it can hurt your manual dexterity, he explains.
13. You're having trouble getting aroused
Sexual arousal starts in the central nervous system—so your brain actually has to send messages to your sexual organs to get them revved up. But in MS, since the brain-body connection isn't working properly, your body might not get the memo that you're ready for action, according to the National MS Society.
Sexual problems are actually pretty common among women with MS—as many as 72 percent of female patients are affected by sexual issues including reduced sensation in the vaginal or clitoral area (or painfully heightened sensations), along with vaginal dryness.
14. You can't tell if something's hot or cold
An inability to sense temperature changes with your hands is another symptom of MS-induced nerve damage, Segil says.
15. You've tested negative for every other disease, but you still feel ill
'Multiple sclerosis is considered one of the 'great masqueraders', along with lupus, because its symptoms are so easily attributed to other causes or illnesses,' Segil says. 'Because the symptoms depend entirely on which nerves are affected, no two patients will present the same.'
For many women, this means that they only get an accurate diagnosis of MS after their doctors have ruled everything else out.
Fortunately, an MRI scan can spot the telltale "lesions" of the disease, so don't be afraid to ask about getting tested for it, he adds.
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