- People with relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis (MS) may go through periods of new or worsening symptoms called flares.
- Common symptoms of MS flares can include feeling tired, pain, numbness, dizziness, muscle spasms, muscle weakness, brain fog, problems with going to the bathroom, or trouble seeing.
- Disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) can help reduce the rate of relapses and slow MS progression.
Many people with multiple sclerosis (MS) experience periods of new or worsening symptoms. These episodes are known as flare-ups, relapses, or exacerbations. About 4 out of 5 people with MS are initially diagnosed with relapsing types of MS (including relapsing-remitting MS, or RRMS), which can all involve flares.
During a flare, you may experience new MS symptoms or have old symptoms return. Symptoms may last anywhere from a couple of days to several months. On average, flares tend to improve after four to six weeks. There is no specific list of symptoms that doctors use to diagnose a flare — these episodes look different from person to person. Flares may also vary each time you have them. New flares may involve different symptoms compared to old flares. Additionally, some flares only cause minor issues, and others can drastically affect your health.
Read more about how long MS relapses last.
How Do You Know if It’s a Flare?
You are not necessarily having a flare-up every time you feel a little worse than usual. You could be experiencing health problems caused by other factors, or your MS symptoms may periodically improve and worsen without technically being a flare. Neurologists consider it a flare if:
- Your symptoms last for 24 hours or more.
- Your symptoms can’t be explained by another factor, including fever or infection.
- Your condition was stable for 30 days or more before your symptoms worsened.
If your new or worsening symptoms don’t meet these criteria, you may be having a pseudoexacerbation. Pseudoexacerbations aren’t caused by new damage to the central nervous system. They are associated with other influences, which can range from hot weather to stress or an infection — most frequently a urinary tract infection.
Below are some possible symptoms that may arise when you’re having a flare. However, keep in mind that your flares may not include any or all of these symptoms. You may also experience other health issues that are not on this list. Talk to your health care provider if you’re not sure whether you are experiencing a flare and need help managing relapses.
Tiredness is one of the most common symptoms of a flare. You may also experience weakness or malaise (a general overall feeling of sickness).
During a flare, fatigue may be caused by cytokines — substances produced by the immune system. In addition to causing certain symptoms of MS flares, cytokines may slow down the speed at which your nerves convey messages.
A flare that consists primarily of fatigue may not need any treatment — your energy levels should eventually return to normal. However, talk to your doctor if you’re so tired that you can’t carry out your usual activities.
Pain is another common symptom that people experience during MS flares. There are many different types of pain you may notice, including:
- Facial pain
- Back pain
- Burning pain in your feet or hands
- Muscle aches
- A squeezing feeling around your midsection
Pain may occur as nerve cells in your brain, spinal cord, or other parts of your body are damaged. MS can also cause tightening or stiffening of the muscles, which may lead to pain.
Medications, medical devices, massage, acupuncture, and yoga may help reduce pain. Physical therapy or occupational therapy may also help prevent new symptoms of pain.
3. Unusual Sensations
MS flares can lead to several unusual or uncomfortable sensations, such as:
- A pins-and-needles sensation
- Electric shocks
- Restless legs syndrome (a condition that makes you feel like you have to move your legs)
Your nerves are responsible for noticing various sensations and communicating these feelings to the brain. When MS damages the nerves, these unusual sensations can be the result.
When these sensations are mild, you may not need treatment. The sensations will generally improve after a short time. However, you should talk to your doctor if these feelings are severe or ongoing.
4. Balance Problems
You may feel dizzy, lightheaded, or uncoordinated during an MS flare. It may be harder than usual to walk. You may also experience vertigo (a feeling like everything is spinning around you).
These changes occur when the parts of your nervous system that control balance become damaged by MS.
Balance problems may make it unsafe for you to walk or take part in your usual activities. Tell your doctor about this symptom so that it can be treated right away.
5. Muscle Tightness and Weakness
Trouble walking or moving may also come as a result of spasticity — muscle stiffness or muscle movements that you can’t control. You may have a hard time bending or straightening your joints as a result of spasticity.
When spasticity is severe, it can be painful. In people with MS, this symptom most often occurs in the leg muscles. Weakness can also be the issue. It can affect your legs or arms.
6. Problems With Thinking
An MS relapse may leave your mind in a fog. You may have a hard time:
- Thinking clearly
- Planning or organizing
- Talking or listening
Known as cognitive symptoms, these symptoms affect more than half of people with MS. If you are experiencing changes in the way your mind works, talk to your doctor. Your health care team can help evaluate problems and may recommend cognitive rehabilitation or other strategies to help you improve and cope.
7. Changes in Bladder or Bowel Habits
Many people with MS need to urinate frequently, experience constipation or diarrhea, or have a hard time holding in stool or urine. These problems, which can get worse during a flare, may develop if there are problems with the parts of the spinal cord that help control the bladder or intestines.
Bladder or bowel problems may hold you back and stop you from living your life to the fullest. However, your doctor can help you come up with treatment options — which may include medication, medical devices, diet changes, pelvic floor therapy, surgery, or lifestyle changes — to help you avoid these issues in the future.
8. Vision Changes
You may have a hard time seeing clearly during an MS flare-up. About 7 out of 10 people with MS have at least one occasion during their illness in which they experience vision problems. These issues include blurred vision, double vision, a blind spot, difficulty seeing colors, unusual eye movements, or blindness.
Eye problems during MS may occur as a result of inflammation of the optic nerve (the nerve fiber that carries signals from the eyes to the brain) or because of weakness or stiffness of the muscles around the eye.
Vision problems can be serious. If you are having new or worsening vision problems, tell your doctor right away. Medications such as corticosteroids can help treat vision loss and other symptoms of a flare.
MS Treatments Can Reduce the Rate of Relapses
Disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) were approved based on their proven effectiveness in reducing the rate of relapses and slowing the progression of MS. If you’ve been taking your prescribed DMT on schedule, as directed, and you’re still having relapses, it may be time to talk to your doctor about your MS treatment plan.
Talk With Others Who Understand
MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 195,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with multiple sclerosis.
Do you have the same symptoms with each MS flare, or do they vary? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyMSTeam.
- Managing Relapses — National Multiple Sclerosis Society
- What Is a “Pseudoexacerbation”? — Multiple Sclerosis Association of America
- Management of Acute Exacerbations in Multiple Sclerosis — Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology
- MS Relapses — Multiple Sclerosis News Today
- Diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis: 2017 Revisions of the McDonald Criteria — The Lancet Neurology
- Pain and Multiple Sclerosis — Multiple Sclerosis News Today
- Vertigo and Dizziness — National Multiple Sclerosis Society
- Spasticity — National Multiple Sclerosis Society
- Cognitive Changes — National Multiple Sclerosis Society
- Bladder Problems — National Multiple Sclerosis Society
- Bowel Problems — National Multiple Sclerosis Society
- MS Vision Problems: Common Eye Symptoms — Multiple Sclerosis News Today