How Does Multiple Sclerosis Affect the Body?

Last Editorial Review: 9/27/2017

Ask the experts

I recently received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and I need more information on what symptoms and signs to expect as the disease progresses. How does multiple sclerosis affect the body?

Doctor's response

Multiple sclerosis symptoms are dependent on the area of the destruction of the mylein sheath protecting the nerves (demyelination).

Early signs and symptoms are vision problems like double vision or vision loss.

Other symptoms and signs may include:

  • Visual changes, including loss of vision if the optic nerve has been affected
  • Double vision
  • A sensation or feeling of numbness, tingling, or weakness. The weakness may be mild or severe enough to cause paralysis of one side of the body
  • Vertigo (a sense of spinning) or dizziness
  • Lack of coordination of the arms or legs, problems with balance, problems walking, and falling
  • Slurred speech
  • A sense of an electrical charge traveling down the spine with neck flexion (Lhermitte sign)
  • In some cases, a person may develop incontinence or even an inability to empty their bladder.
  • As the condition progresses, some people are left with muscle spasticity, or an involuntary painful contraction of certain muscles.

Patients with multiple sclerosis are felt to have the same life expectancy of those without multiple sclerosis. However, for patients with severe, progressive forms of this disease, problems caused by disability may lead to complications such as pneumonia.

If patients are not treated, over 30% may develop pronounced problems with mobility. It is not yet known what the long-term outcome of patients who begin treatment at an early stage of their disease will be.

There are two extremes in multiple sclerosis. The first is a "benign" syndrome in which patients have numerous lesions identified on MRI imaging, but have few -- if any -- symptoms, even decades after their diagnosis. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a condition identified as the Marburg variant of multiple sclerosis, where rapidly progressive symptoms are seen and death may occur after a very short time.

For more information, read our full medical article on multiple sclerosis symptoms, signs, treatment, and prognosis.

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