Symptoms of MS can show years before disease itself

For once, I am pleased to know that I am not alone. Researchers in Canada report that people with multiple sclerosis can show symptoms of something wrong five years before disease onset. This is much earlier than previously thought, but just not as early as my own experience.

Let me explain. My first indication that all was not well was in the mid-1980s and doctors were concerned enough to order a lumbar puncture (spinal tap). However, for whatever reason, the result was negative. Doctors said don’t worry, it’s nothing serious.

Almost 20 years later, following further symptoms and new concerns of mine, I had more tests.  These showed I had MS, and the neurologist told me that he had gone through my medical records and found evidence of MS more than 25 years earlier. So, it looks like the 1980s’ lumbar puncture was a false negative.

The Canadian research, published in Lancet Neurology, and reviewed by Science Daily, is a first step toward identifying red flags. These should help doctors screen for the disease and start interventions earlier.


Dr Helen Tremlett of the University of British Columbia.

“Proving that people with multiple sclerosis have already changed their behaviour in the five years before even the earliest medical recognition of the condition is very important. It means we have to look beyond those five years to understand how it is caused,” said Dr Helen Tremlett. She is senior author of the study and an associate professor for neurology in the department of medicine at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health.

Symptoms well before MS recognized

The researchers examined health records of 14,000 people with multiple sclerosis over a 20-year period and compared them to the health records of 72,000 people without the disease. This study showed there is a phase where people show symptoms before multiple sclerosis is medically recognized.

“There’s something going on here that makes this population of people unique,” said José Wijnands, first author of the manuscript. He is a postdoctoral fellow and a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research trainee.

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Affiliate disclaimer: This affiliate disclosure details the affiliate relationships of MS, Health & Disability at with other companies and products. Read more.

* * * * * is the personal website of Ian Franks, a Features Writer with Healthline, the fastest growing health information site. He enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, from reporter to editor in the print media. He gained a Journalist of the Year award in his native UK. Ian received a diagnosis of MS in 2002 and now lives in the south of Spain. He uses a wheelchair and advocates on mobility and accessibility issues.


6 thoughts on “Symptoms of MS can show years before disease itself

  1. My fiancé was diagnosed with MS in 2010. I was only recently made aware of this diagnosis within the last few months. He had not been treated for/seen any doctors who specialize in MS since he and I have been together. I am very uneducated so to speak regarding MS so would appreciate any insight whatsoever regarding this disease.
    Thank you in advance!


    • Hi Tiffany. Has your fiancé not seen a neurologist? Was he told what type of MS he has? Also, where are you, ie what country? I am happy to help with information but that will not be medical advice. Feel free to contact me direct by email


  2. Gosh we share a similar history. I had terrible dizziness that lasted for months. My GP at the called benign positional vertigo but also said it ususally occured in older people, I was 30 something. Another weird thing was numbness in both my great toes, severe pain in right rib area that has not relented 30 years later, dog dead tired exhaustion. All explained away because my brain MRI did’t show lesions. It showed something else but it was debunked by a specialist at a very credible hospital and no further follow up on that one. Finally my doctor got tired of hearing me complain, my assumption, sent me to pain management. First visit there on simple neuro exam I was asked if I’d ever had a stroke. No I hadn’t, but also on a routine employment ECG was asked if I’d ever had an MI, not to my knowledge. Anyway I was immediately sent to neurology about 10 years ago. Spinal tap positive, MRI showed some lesions and then the merry go round started. So I find your story similar and interesting. Now at the age of 67, was told by one neurologist about 5 years ago “you won’t get new symptoms after 65”. Really? Well he was wrong, but I really wanted to believe him. Struggling to battle but feel like I’m not winning and some days are just too damn hard! I have to retire and it feels like such a defeat. Plus there’s a whole other cascade of craziness I just don’t want to face. Some of the posts on this site express much of my anger toward so many things related to this disease.


    • Hi Mary, I am less than three months away from being 65, so our experiences are even more similar. I hope reading my story makes you fell less alone.


  3. Me too: visual iregularities, not painful…, some years after uni, retrabulbar neuritis: steroids, we are learning, so I help / spread the MSers word as much as I can these days!


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