Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system that can cause a range of symptoms. Some people have more mild symptoms while the disease is completely disabling in others.
MS is three times more common in women than men, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, making it important to at least know what multiple sclerosis symptoms in females look like if you’re a woman. While MS can present differently in everyone, there are some more common symptoms that tend to show up.
So, what does MS look like for females? Doctors break it down.
Common multiple sclerosis symptoms in females
Symptoms of MS can show up differently in men vs. women, says Nicholas Lannen, M.D., a neurologist at Spectrum Health West Michigan. “Women tend to have symptoms more along the lines of pain or headache as initial symptoms of MS,” he says. "They’re also more likely than men to be misdiagnosed.”
Women also tend to have a relapsing form of MS—meaning, symptoms get worse and then better, says Rhonda Voskuhl, M.D., professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the UCLA Multiple Sclerosis Program, while men with MS typically “get to a certain disability level in a shorter period of time.”
What are those symptoms, exactly? The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) has a long list:
Blurred or double vision
Red-green color distortion
Blindness in one eye
Muscle weakness in extremities
Difficulty with coordination and balance
Pins and needles sensations
Trouble with concentration, attention, memory, and judgement
Given that MS is more common in women than men, the signs of MS as a whole are typically the symptoms you would see in females, says Amit Sachdev, M.D., an assistant professor and director of the Division of Neuromuscular Medicine at Michigan State University. “For the most part, women do not experience the symptoms of the disease differently,” he says.
What is multiple sclerosis, again?
MS is a potentially disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord that happens when the immune system attacks the protective sheath (myelin) that covers nerve fibers, the Mayo Clinic explains. This causes communication issues between your brain and the rest of your body, leading to symptoms of the disease. MS can also cause permanent damage or deterioration of the nerves.
Why are women more likely to develop MS?
“Women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases in general,” Dr. Lannen says. “MS is no exception.”
There are a lot of “different complex factors” involved in this, including hormonal differences, protein levels, and immune system differences, Dr. Lannen says. Testosterone, which is thought to help protect against MS, is also found in lower levels in women, he points out.
“We are still working to try to figure this out,” Dr. Voskuhl says. “It could be due to sex hormones, sex chromosomes, or both.”
What to do if you have symptoms of MS
MS can affect the brain in several places at different times, making it tough to get a proper diagnosis, Dr. Voskuhl says. “It can affect vision one time, cognition another, and coordination another,” she explains. “Symptoms can also come and go. That makes it difficult to diagnose.”
Still, she says, “diagnosis is a lot easier than it used to be before we had MRIs.” An MRI can show lesions on the brain that lead to MS symptoms, making this a vital tool for diagnosing the disease.
If you’re having symptoms of the disease and aren’t getting relief from treatment for those particular symptoms, it’s worth at least asking your doctor if it could be MS. Throwing it out there could help you get a diagnosis sooner rather than later—or rule out MS entirely.
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