Multiple sclerosis (MS) has been in the news recently after actor Christina Applegate revealed that she had been diagnosed with the illness—but she's far from the only one. MS is a chronic condition that affects millions of people around the world. With that in mind, it's important to be aware of any warning signs. While the manner in which the disease begins is somewhat unpredictable, experts say there are a few symptoms that tend to show up first. And one early sign in particular can appear when you're walking. Read on to see if you've experienced this tell-tale MS sign.
If you notice a loss of balance, dizziness, or tingling when walking, it could be an early MS sign.
MS can affect your ability to walk for a number of reasons, including difficulty balancing, dizziness, and tingling. "Balance problems and dizziness are common in people with MS and can occur early in the disease course," says Barbara Giesser, MD, neurologist and MS specialist at Pacific Neuroscience Institute. These symptoms are "often described as feeling as though someone is drunk, or walking on a rocking boat," she explains. Sometimes the dizziness will manifest as vertigo, the feeling that you or the world around you is moving. "The balance issues can interfere with walking and can make going up or down stairs particularly challenging," Giesser continues.
David Beatty MRCGP, MBBS, a U.K.-based general practitioner, says that the lack of coordination comes when the cerebellum is affected. "When the feet and legs aren't coordinating well, this causes the person to walk like someone who's very drunk. The feet are further apart than usual, and there is a staggering, off-balance appearance to the walking gait," he says.
Another common early sign of MS is tingling in the feet and legs. These pins and needles are a result of issues with sensory nerves. Beatty explains that the tingling can make walking "tentative and awkward, because the brain isn't getting the sensory information it needs to then tell the motor nerves what to do."
A person with MS can also experience difficulty walking due to muscle tightness, vision impairments, and other symptoms.
Loss of balance, dizziness, and tingling aren't the only symptoms of MS that can get in the way of walking. According to Above MS, a person's ability to walk can be affected by other symptoms, including muscle tightness, lack of coordination, foot drop, vision impairments, fatigue, and weakness.
Brittany Ferri, PhD, an occupational therapist and integrative mental health expert, says walking is often one of the biggest concerns for people who have MS. "Some people need walkers or wheelchairs when their symptoms get particularly bad, but this may change as symptoms go away and then come back," she notes.
Other signs of MS include fatigue, muscle tremors, and pain.
There's a wide spectrum of possible MS symptoms to be aware of. Giesser says other signs of the disease include tremors and bouncing visual disturbances. Ferri notes that extreme fatigue and changes in bowel and bladder movement—mainly incontinence—can also be symptoms of MS. According to Beatty, sexual dysfunction, pain, and cognitive impairment are other signs to know.
As Beatty explains, "There is no clear pattern as to which nerve is affected first. The majority of people with MS will get a neurological episode lasting days, weeks, or a few months." That's generally followed by remission, during which time symptoms improve, until another relapse.
RELATED: For more health content delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
These symptoms are all caused by problems with the nervous system.
MS is an autoimmune inflammatory condition that affects the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord. "The myelin covering of the nervous tissue is damaged, affecting the performance and function of that part of the brain or nerve," Beatty says. "It can first present in many different ways, depending upon which part of the nervous system is affected." The nervous system controls many of the major body functions. That's why MS symptoms can be so disparate—and impossible to predict.