How to Manage 4 Common MS Symptoms
If you know anyone else with multiple sclerosis (MS), you’ve probably realized that no two people experience the disease exactly the same way. One person may have a single mild MS symptom that has almost completely gone away, and another person may be experiencing a new, more serious symptom of MS that causes difficulty functioning in their daily life.
Knowing which MS symptoms are common and understanding which you’re experiencing can help you and your healthcare team successfully manage them with medication, rehabilitation, and lifestyle strategies—and help you feel better from day to day.
Here are some of the most common symptoms of MS, along with tips on what you can do about them.
“Fatigue is the most common and one of the most debilitating symptoms of MS,” says Nada Abou-Fayssal, M.D., board-certified neurologist and director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center at New York University Langone Hospital-Brooklyn. Up to 80% of people with MS experience fatigue, she says.
People with MS can experience a type of fatigue called lassitude that doesn’t just make them tired—it can cause complete exhaustion. Lassitude can happen daily, even when you’ve just woken up from a good night’s sleep. This type of fatigue can worsen as the day goes on and/or if you’re exposed to heat and humidity.
“For people who develop heat-related lassitude, it is important to cool down and avoid overheating,” Abou-Fayssal says.
People with MS also can become easily fatigued as a result of trouble sleeping, depression, pain, and nocturia (having to urinate frequently at night).
“I always tell my patients the best way to overcome fatigue is to address any underlying conditions that may be contributing to poor sleep, such as depression, pain, insomnia, or nighttime urination,” Abou-Fayssal says.
To manage fatigue, Abou-Fayssal also recommends regular exercise. “Regular exercise has [been] proven to improve MS-related fatigue,” she says. Exercise is known to help boost energy, but it’s easier said than done if you’re already experiencing fatigue or other symptoms, like numbness, weakness, or walking or balance issues.
If your abilities are limited, you may find it helpful to work with a physical therapist or an exercise specialist to find a routine that works for you. It’s important to start with simple exercises and work your way up gradually to avoid overexerting yourself; it may take some time to be able to do exercises you were able to do before you became sick.
Another way to fight MS fatigue is to conserve your energy. An occupational therapist can show you how to simplify tasks you typically do at home and on the job, so you’re using less of your energy stores to complete them.
Sometimes a medication called dalfampridine can help with walking, which could, in turn, reduce motor fatigue, a weakness that occurs the more you use your muscles, says Jacqueline A. Nicholas, M.D., a board-certified neurologist and system chief of neuroimmunology and multiple sclerosis at OhioHealth Multiple Sclerosis Center in Columbus.
Other medications can sometimes be used off-label to treat fatigue related to MS, such as Amantadine (an antiviral medication typically used to treat Parkinson’s disease), stimulants such as modafinil, and antidepressants. If you’re experiencing fatigue, you can ask your doctor if medication might be right for you.
2. Bladder Issues
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), at least 80% of people with MS experience problems with urination, which can include having to go constantly (especially at night), hesitancy or trouble starting to urinate, an inability to hold urine, and/or an inability to completely empty the bladder.
If you’re experiencing any of these issues, Nicholas recommends seeing a urologist who can help you address your symptoms. Treatment may include diet changes, avoiding drinking alcohol or caffeine too close to bedtime, limiting alcohol and caffeine, and training your bladder to hold urine longer with certain exercises. Your doctor also may prescribe medication that can address specific symptoms, like urgency.
3. Vision Problems
Vision problems such as blurriness, double vision, and eye pain may be one of the first signs of MS. Some people with MS may experience changes in vision where everything appears dim and colors aren’t right. You may notice a blurred or dim spot in the center of your field of vision, or your peripheral vision could be off. Often, it’s just one eye that’s affected.
If trouble seeing is one of your MS symptoms, see your doctor right away. Depending on the vision problem you’re having, they may prescribe steroids or other medications to treat it. Sometimes, a patch on one eye or eyeglasses with special prisms in them can help minimize double vision.
4. Abnormal Sensations
Another common symptom in MS is numbness or tingling in the face, arms, legs, or body. Sometimes it can feel like a lack of sensation, as if your arm or leg fell asleep, but it could also feel as if you’re being poked with pins and needles. Numbness and/or tingling can be a mild annoyance or severe enough to interfere with your ability to go about your daily life.
Unfortunately, no medications relieve numbness, but it may get better as you recover from a relapse. There are some medications that can help with the pins-and-needles sensation. Your doctor may suggest a course of corticosteroids to accelerate your recovery if it’s disabling.
Strategies That Can Help You Manage Your MS Symptoms
No matter what multiple sclerosis symptoms you’re experiencing, one of the most important things you can do is try to prevent developing new ones by starting a disease-modifying treatment. Then, follow up regularly with your doctor on how the treatment is working.
“Make sure your MS therapy is working to prevent any new or active MS lesions on the MRI of your brain and spinal cord,” says Peter Calabresi, M.D., board-certified neurologist, director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center, and professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Calabresi also says it’s important to stick to healthy habits. “Live a healthy lifestyle: Eat fruits and veggies, get enough sleep, and limit alcohol and stress.”
With your doctor’s approval, you might also try some additional techniques to cope. For example, actress and dancer Courtney Platt, 33, has found that music therapy helps her manage her everyday symptoms of MS, which include exhaustion, numbness in her legs, forgetfulness, anxiety, and slurred speech. Courtney was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS in 2012 while appearing on So You Think You Can Dance.
Music therapy, Courtney says, helps her achieve a mind-body harmony that helps her deal with the obstacles her MS poses. For example, she says, she makes up songs to help her remember her shopping list and does singing exercises to help her speak more clearly. And a recent study backs her up; it found that music therapy has the potential for helping people with MS overcome mental and physical symptoms, especially for those who were highly motivated.
“Music has played such a huge role in my life,” she says. “But I never realized it could help me manage my MS symptoms.”
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