If You Notice This With Your Eyes, It Could Be the First Sign of MS

For 20 percent of MS patients, it's the first symptom they notice.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable disease whose symptoms both vary greatly from patient to patient, and are easy to miss. The long-lasting illness affects more than 900,000 people in the United States, according to the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation, and symptoms tend to worsen over time. That's why it's important to get an early MS diagnosis, and the key is knowing the warning signs. Though each patient's case is different, there are certain common indications of MS that often show up at the beginning, one of which affects your eyes. Research shows that half of MS patients experience it, and it's the first sign in 20 percent of people with the disease. Read on to know what you should look out for.

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Pain in your eyes or temporary loss of vision is a common early sign of MS.

Woman itching her eyes

For many MS patients, inflammation of the optic nerve, also known as optic neuritis (ON), is a common and often early symptom. The optic nerve connects the eye to the brain, which is what allows you to interpret visual information, the experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine explain. However, when the nerve is inflamed, it can lead to blurry or temporary loss of vision and pain in your eye.

In a 2016 study published in the journal Eye and Brain, author and researcher Nilufer Kale details how 90 percent of patients with ON experience eye pain before a loss of vision. Kale also notes that ON is the initial indication of MS for 20 percent of patients.

RELATED: If You Notice This With Your Hands, It Could Be an Early Sign of MS.

There are other vision problems that can occur due to MS, too. 

Senior man is holding eyeglasses and rubbing his tired eyes while reading e-book in tablet.

Other visual issues can also come with MS. In a study published in the journal Neurology and Therapy this past June, researchers explain how people with MS can experience loss of or reduced color vision, difficulties when moving their eyes, and a reduced ability to detect objects' differences brightness.

As noted by The National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), patients with MS can also experience nystagmus, which causes the eye to move uncontrollably, making it "feel like the world is moving." Along with that, seeing double, known as diplopia, can occur in MS patients when their eyes are inflamed.

Diplopia and nystagmus can also lead to other MS symptoms, including feeling off-balance and lightheaded. "Added to a little bit of leg weakness or gait imbalance, and these vision problems can increase one's safety risk," Elliot Frohman, MD, associate professor of neurology and director of the MS Program at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center told NMSS.

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Nearly 50 percent of MS patients develop issues with their vision.

young man standing in front of mirror. He is looking precisely at face and touching skin under eyes with finger

Vision problems are extremely common for MS patients, whether they're newly diagnosed or have lived with MS for years. In fact, 50 percent of people with MS develop visual impairments at some point during their disease, as noted by John Hopkins Medicine.

Like other MS symptoms—which include difficulty walking and numbness or tingling in the body—these visual symptoms affect each patient differently. In a 2013 study published in The Multiple Sclerosis Journal, researchers examined the severity of visual impairments among 9,107 patients in the North American Research Committee on Multiple Sclerosis. Their findings showed that nearly 67 percent had a visual disability and 43 percent reported having a history with ON.

There is a wide range of treatments to help improve MS patients' vision.

woman looking in a mirror at her eyes
LittleBee80 / iStock

A group of researchers known as the Optic Neuritis Study Group examined ON patients for more than 15 years and published their findings in 2007. They discovered that medications, like corticosteroids, could help people with ON quickly recover from their visual symptoms and even delay MS from developing. The NMSS says that steroids are also recommended as a form of treatment for nystagmus and diplopia.

Fresnel lenses, a prism in eyeglasses that helps reduce blurriness, or simply covering your eye are alternative treatments to persistent diplopia. "Patching an eye will not affect the vision in any way and will not delay recovery to any significant degree," Thomas R. Hedges, MD, professor of ophthalmology and neurology at Tufts University School of Medicine and the director of neuro-ophthalmology at the New England Medical Center, told NMSS. "The brain always tells both eyes to move at once."

Hedges said that when medications aren't working for constant nystagmus, there aren't many other alternatives. One form of treatment has been to give patients the highest possible prescription for their glasses, and on rare occasions, surgery and botox injections are also used.

RELATED: If You Notice This While Walking, It May Be an Early Sign of MS.

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