Around 1 million people in the United States are living with multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is a chronic disease that can affect your brain, spinal cord, and the optic nerves behind your eyes. It’s most often diagnosed in adults between the ages of 20 and 40, but can occur in young children and older adults as well.
MS causes your immune system to attack myelin, a fatty substance wrapped around your nerves. As a result, “Your nerves no longer work exactly like they should to help you move and feel,” says Kristin Galetta, MD, a Mass General Brigham neurologist.
Although there is no known cure for MS, there are effective treatments that can reduce the risk of attacks and slow the course of the disease. With early detection and treatment, you may be able to help slow its progression. And according to Mass General Brigham neuroimmunologist Michael Levy, MD, PhD, “It’s important to get treatment [as soon as possible] to prevent longer-term damage to your nervous system.”
If you are concerned about MS, you may be wondering what to look for and when to seek care. Drs. Galetta and Levy discuss the early signs of MS to watch for in women and in men.
“I get this question a lot,” says Dr. Levy. “Unfortunately, as of right now, we don’t know exactly what causes MS. There are many factors that make someone at higher risk for developing it, such as smoking, certain infections, and vitamin D deficiency. Autoimmune disorders can affect your MS, too.”
People often wonder if MS is passed down through families. While the disease is not directly inherited—meaning it’s not passed down from one generation to the next—there is a genetic risk for MS that is inherited. So, if you have a family history of MS, it’s a good idea to pay attention to changes in your body and mind that might be early signs of the disease.
Watch this video featuring Drs. Galetta and Levy for the answers to other common questions about MS.
According to Dr. Galetta, MS can cause a wide range of symptoms, the most common of which include:
For many, vision problems are one of the first symptoms of MS. Specifically, people living with MS may experience inflammation of the optic nerve (the nerve responsible for vision). This can lead to blurred or double vision, among other things.
Because cataracts can also create cloudy vision or double vision, people often wonder: Are cataracts an early sign of MS? This does not appear to be the case.
Many people who are concerned about symptoms of MS wonder about dizziness and vertigo as well. Is vertigo an early sign of MS? It can be—but it isn’t necessarily, either. MS symptoms often vary from person to person, so while one person experiences vertigo, another may not.
Although people with MS can experience most of the same symptoms, there are a handful of sex-specific symptoms to be aware of. It’s important to know, however, that there are many other reasons people may be experiencing symptoms like those listed below. Dr. Levy explains: “Even though people with MS may experience these symptoms, they are most often caused by something other than MS.”
Both women and men can be diagnosed with MS. However, the condition is more common in women: In fact, studies show that women are three times more likely to develop the condition.
Symptoms specific to women can include:
Women diagnosed with MS who are menstruating may experience an increase in their symptoms, such as depression, fatigue, and weakness.
Menopause can also have an impact on women with MS. Research has found that some women report a worsening of MS symptoms after menopause. But others note that menopause reduced their rate of relapse.
Women living with MS who are hoping to become pregnant worry about the impacts of the condition on their future. While it’s important to speak with your provider about living with MS while pregnant, Dr. Galetta explains that overall, there is hope. “Our patients can get pregnant and raise families,” she says.
MS symptoms specific to men may include:
Men living with MS are more likely than women to experience:
“There are many effective medications available to reduce the risks of attacks and slow the course of MS,” says Dr. Levy. “Most of these medications are well tolerated in the long term and allow you to return to your previous lifestyle. There are also strategies to ease your symptoms and help you manage the stress and physical pain that can come with the condition.”
Patients with MS can consult specialists who can help them manage their symptoms and prevent inflammatory relapse. Some ways to manage MS include:
“While ongoing research is still searching for a cure for MS, our patients can live happy and healthy lives,” adds Dr. Galetta, “especially when we focus on treatment, symptom management, and prevention.”