An odd sensation in her legs first sent Jaime-Lynn Sigler to the emergency room at just 20 years old. Not long after, the actress was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), she told Fox News in 2016.
Jamie-Lynn is just one 2.3 million people worldwide who suffer from MS, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
A nervous system disease affecting the brain and spinal cord, MS blocks the messages that flow between the brain and the body, often resulting in vision problems, muscle weakness, coordination issues, numbness, and thinking or memory problems, according to the National Institutes of Health. While there’s no cure for the disease, treatments can slow or delay the progression of symptoms.
While 20 may seem young to be diagnosed, it’s not unusual for MS patients. “It is certainly possible to get it earlier or later in life, but one of the worst parts of MS is that it often strikes people in their physical prime,” says Clifford Segil, M.D., a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
The odd sensation Jaime-Lynn felt in her legs is just one of many mysterious MS symptoms in women. Here are a few more to watch out for:
1. You stop getting your period.
Any illness that affects your immune system, including multiple sclerosis, may cause amenorrhea, or the loss of your period, says Segil. Missing a period every so often is not a big deal—everything from stress to traveling to the flu can temporarily throw your reproductive system out of sync—but if your period is gone for more than three months in a row or your cycle becomes erratic, it’s time to talk to a doctor.
2. You’ve been especially clumsy lately.
“People often think they just have bad balance but having weakness in one or both of your limbs could be a sign that something is wrong with your motor nerves,” Segil says. So if you find yourself tripping, stumbling, feeling unsteady, or falling frequently for no reason, get to a doctor ASAP.
3. You’re having trouble multitasking, or you’ve been really moody.
Sleep disorders, mood changes, specific medications, and other disorders can cause you to lose your marbles mentally and emotionally, but according to Kathleen Costello, a nurse practitioner and associate vice president of healthcare access at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, about 60 percent or more of those diagnosed with MS experience some form of cognitive or emotional distress.
Those with MS can suffer from impaired recall, difficulty with depression, irritability, sudden mood swings, and uncontrollable fits of crying or laughter.
4. You’re feeling some pretty weird sensations.
Sensory issues are a strange but common sign of multiple sclerosis. “My patients often say that their body just feels different, on a sensory level, from one part to the next,” Segil explains. “For example, when they put on their shirt, it feels differently sliding over their chest than it does going over their stomach.”
Half of people diagnosed with MS also have chronic pain, which is usually coupled with involuntary spasms, inexplicable weakness, or stiffness in the muscles. “It is often described as heaviness or like the limb is worn out,” says Costello. The legs are usually the first extremity to bear the brunt of the muscular woes, but the back is also a typical problem area.
“Weakness can occur due to other causes such as infections, nerve compression, disk herniation (that will likely also cause pain in the limb), and other autoimmune conditions,” says Costello. If your own body just can’t hold you up, seek the help of a doctor.
5. You can’t distinguish between colors anymore.
If you previously had a good eye for color, don’t brush this off, Segil says. “It’s called optic neuritis and it happens because of a loss of insulation around the optic nerves in the brain; it’s one of the primary symptoms of multiple sclerosis,” he explains.
But it’s not just color-related: MS can also manifest as partial blindness, color blindness, blind spots, or blindness only in one eye. “Some people describe this as looking through a smudged contact lens, or looking through a screen or through water,” says Costello. “It may also be associated with pain or a pulling sensation during eye movement.”
The onset of MS-related vision problems is usually slow, since the deterioration of the eyes happens over time. Optic neuritis can also happen on its own—without necessarily being associated with multiple sclerosis—as a result of an infection, a vitamin deficiency, or other autoimmune diseases. In any case, Costello recommends prompt medical care if you notice any impairment in your vision.
6. You’re forgetting everything.
If you’ve forgotten your bestie’s birthday, lost your keys five times in one week, and rewashed the same clean laundry twice, you might worry you have early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The good news is that Alzheimer’s is extremely rare in young women. The bad news is that multiple sclerosis isn’t and problems with short-term memory or other cognitive issues can be MS symptoms in women.
7. You’re always drinking water, but you rarely have to pee.
Being able to hydrate all day without visiting the ladies room may seem like an awesome talent, but it’s not a good thing. Not only will it get painful fast, but it’s also a hallmark of multiple sclerosis, especially if you’re stopped up for more than 24 hours, Segil says.
However, any big change in urinary frequency can be an MS symptom in women, and is often how people end up getting diagnosed, he adds. Sometimes it’s the opposite, and you have to pee all the time.
“Many people with MS report a sense of ‘gotta-go’ bladder urgency or may need to use the restroom more frequently,” says Costello. “Sometimes they are even awakened during the night by the urge to urinate.” Dysfunctional bathroom habits occur in about 80 percent of people with MS, and the inability to hold in your pee is often accompanied by constipation, diarrhea, and uncontrollable bowel movements as well.
8. Your foot keeps falling asleep.
Normally, you only get that prickly pins-and-needles feeling when you’ve put pressure on your leg for too long, temporarily cutting off blood flow. But if you find that your arms, legs, hands, or feet feel numb, burning, or tingly out of nowhere, that can be a sign of MS, Segil says.
These could also be red flags that something other than MS is up. “Other conditions such as peripheral nerve compression, disk problems in the neck or back, certain types of infections, nutritional deficiencies, anemia, and thyroid issues may cause numbness and tingling as well,” says Costello.
9. You randomly get dizzy or nauseated.
Everyone can trip over their feet from time to time, but MS causes something more than everyday clumsiness: One of the earliest MS symptoms in women is extreme dizziness or vertigo, that funny dizzy feeling you get when you drive up a windy road or stand on a high bridge, is most often caused by an inner-ear problem, like an infection. But the nerve damage from MS can mess up your motor, sensory, and coordination systems, making you feel disoriented, unsteady, dizzy, or even nauseated.
Dizzy spells and bouts of vertigo aren’t always caused by MS, though: Inner-ear problems, anemia, low blood sugar, low blood pressure, and certain medications might be possible culprits too. If you find yourself stumbling with lightheadedness, it’s best to get checked out by a doctor right away.
10. You’re having trouble texting or typing.
“One of the first things we often see in MS patients is the inability to text, type, use a cellphone or tablet, or do other things that require fine motor control,” Segil says. As multiple sclerosis advances, it can cause “lesions,” or areas of damage on your nervous system. If you get a lesion on the back region of the brain, it can hurt your manual dexterity, he explains.
11. You can’t tell if something’s hot or cold.
Is the water in your sink hot or cold? If you can’t really tell, and this happens often, it could be a sign of something serious. An inability to sense temperature changes with your hands is another symptom of MS-induced nerve damage, Segil says.
12. You’re tired, like, all the time.
You’re inevitably going to come across those days when you just can’t even. But sudden spells of severe exhaustion that last for weeks and mess with your ability to function normally on a day-to-day basis might be an indication that MS is destroying the nerves in your spinal column. “People with MS describe their fatigue as overwhelming, making even simple tasks difficult,” says Costello. “It is often out of proportion with your activity, is not relieved by sleep, and is worsened if you become overheated.”
Thyroid complications, vitamin deficiencies, anemia, and other serious medical conditions could also be behind your symptoms, so don’t take it lightly if you’re constantly dragging yourself through the day. “If you’re experiencing a new increase in your fatigue level, it is important to discuss it with your physician,” says Costello.
13. You’ve tested negative for every other disease, but you still feel ill.
“Multiple sclerosis is considered one of the ‘great masqueraders’, along with lupus, because its symptoms are so easily attributed to other causes or illnesses,” Segil says.
“Because the symptoms depend entirely on which nerves are affected, no two patients will present the same.” For many women, this means that they only get an accurate diagnosis of MS after their doctors have ruled everything else out. Fortunately, an MRI scan can spot the telltale “lesions” of the disease, so don’t be afraid to ask about getting tested for it, he adds.
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