Christina Applegate says she missed the early signs of multiple sclerosis (MS) and now wishes she’d paid more attention before finally being diagnosed.
The 50-year-old actor recently told the New York Times she first noticed changes in her body a few years ago while shooting the first season of her Netflix show “Dead To Me.”
She struggled with balance during a dancing scene. Then, she noticed her tennis game was slipping, which she chalked up to not working hard enough.
“I wish I had paid attention,” Applegate told the Times. “But who was I to know?”
What to know about multiple sclerosis
According to the Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS “is a disease that impacts the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves, which make up the central nervous system and controls everything we do.”
The exact cause is unknown. Something triggers the immune system to attack the central nervous system. That can damage myelin, the protective layer insulating wire-like nerve fibers, and disrupt signals to and from the brain.
This change can cause unpredictable symptoms such as numbness, tingling, mood changes, memory problems, pain, fatigue, blindness, and/or paralysis. Everyone’s experience with MS is different and these symptoms may be temporary or long-lasting.
MS is not directly inherited from one’s parents, but genetics can be a factor. Having a relative with MS can be a risk factor.
There is no cure for MS, but symptoms are treatable with medication and stress management.
Recognizing MS symptoms early
Experts agree with Applegate that the sooner one recognizes MS symptoms, the better.
“In people who have multiple sclerosis, it is most important to look for signs of a new inflammatory relapse,” Dr. Paige Sutton, a neurologist specializing in neuroimmunology and multiple sclerosis for OhioHealth, told Healthline.
“Relapses are typically very obvious and would include new neurologic symptoms that are constant and last for more than 24 hours,” Sutton said. “Symptoms could include loss of vision/blurry vision in one eye, unilateral facial pain or numbness, vertigo, new weakness or sensory changes on one side or in both legs, or with walking.”
Sutton noted that a “pseudo-relapse” – in which symptoms worsen – can also occur during bodily stresses such as infection, lack of sleep, and emotional stress.
“It is important to consider a ‘pseudo-relapse’ as the cause of symptoms if they are symptoms that have previously occurred during a relapse,” Sutton said. “We recommend that our patients notify their health provider for any new symptoms lasting more than 24 hours and we can help them determine whether it is something to be worried about.”
Difficulties in diagnosis MS
Dr. Nora Lansen, a primary care doctor and Virtual Clinical Director with Galileo Health in New York, told Healthline one problem with diagnosing MS is that symptoms aren’t always specific to the condition.
“For instance, fatigue, anxiety, low mood, decreased focus, constipation – these are all symptoms that are frequently encountered by people who have MS,” Lansen said. “They are also symptoms frequently encountered by people who do not have MS.”
Lansen said the likelihood of these symptoms being early signs of MS is relatively low.
“Situational stress, seasonal affective disorder, PMS, and thyroid dysfunction are just a few alternate diagnoses that are much more common causes of these symptoms than multiple sclerosis,” she said. “That said, because there is no single test that can provide a definitive diagnosis of MS, doctors rely on signs and symptoms of the disease to guide diagnosis and treatment. Any new, scary symptom should be discussed with a healthcare provider, particularly if it doesn’t go away.”
The importance of early diagnosis
Opinions differ as to the effectiveness of early diagnosis.
Angie Randall, a communications specialist from Chicago, told Healthline it made a big difference in her case.
“I was diagnosed with MS at the age of 29, shortly after I got married,” Randall said. “I was devastated and fearful knowing I always wanted to have a family and children one day. I found a neurologist who helped me start treatment right away and supported my family planning goals.”
Randall has since become a mother of two.
“In working closely with (my doctor), I was able to manage my MS and fulfill my dream of having children,” Randall said. “After 7 years, two kids, one career shift, and several health hiccups later, I am here to remind anyone newly diagnosed with MS that your life is not over.”
Sutton said doctors are getting “much better” at finding MS sooner, thanks to updated criteria for diagnosing MS.
“When (an) MRI shows early signs of MS, we can initiate workup and confirm a diagnosis before someone experiences any disabling symptoms,” Sutton explained. “Early diagnosis is especially important because we have very effective therapies that can help prevent future relapses and future disability.”
“It is really an exciting time to work with MS patients because of all of the advances in diagnosis and treatment,” she added.