Rita Tennyson, 51, realized something wasn’t quite right with her health when she experienced a string of abnormal and mostly unexplained symptoms in her early twenties. Among them: numbness, muscle weakness, nausea, vertigo, and facial paralysis. At one point she was given an ear infection diagnosis—a doctor said she likely had a virus enter her ear while visiting SeaWorld on a windy day. Over the years, Tennyson had no idea what was going on with her body, but she had a strong feeling that something really wasn’t right.
It turns out Tennyson didn’t have an ear infection; she has multiple sclerosis (M.S.), a chronic neurological condition that affects the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord. M.S. symptoms can vary from person to person, but some of its early signs can include vision problems, numbness and tingling, arm or leg weakness, changes in balance and coordination, and sensitivity to heat. One important thing to understand about M.S. is that it can’t be diagnosed using a single test. Instead, an M.S. diagnosis is made through a combination of things, including a person’s medical history, neurological exam, tests like an MRI and a lumbar puncture (spinal tap), blood tests to rule out other illnesses, and a physical exam. Tennyson’s experience isn’t exactly unique; an M.S. diagnosis can be challenging, and many M.S. symptoms overlap with those of other conditions. This is her story, as told to health writer Beth Krietsch.
I learned I have M.S. when I was 26, but the road to an accurate diagnosis was a long one. My symptoms first started the summer after I graduated from college, when I was working as a waitress and randomly dropped something. I had also been experiencing a bit of numbness in my arms, so I went to the doctor and they scheduled me for nerve testing. The results didn’t show that anything was wrong, so they basically just said to let them know if similar symptoms popped up again.
The next year I started getting really dizzy and nauseated, and I also had vertigo. I would lie down and not be able to move. If I got up, I would throw up. It got so bad that I went to the E.R., where a doctor told me I must have an inner ear infection. They flushed my ears and sent me on my way, but the relief didn’t last too long.
Soon after, I headed back to my hometown for a wedding and brought my boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband. While there, the nausea and vomiting returned, and my mom assumed I was pregnant. But I knew that couldn’t be the case—this was the same nausea I’d been experiencing for a while.
The next year I experienced paralysis on one side of my face. It was so bad that I couldn’t even smile or clear my nostril on that side. I was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, which is a condition that causes temporary paralysis or weakness of the facial muscles, making it look like half your face is drooping. It may sound strange, but I was actually so relieved because it meant I had a concrete diagnosis that people could actually see. Previously so many of my “invisible” symptoms were things I could only feel. Bell’s palsy is something other people could see with their own eyes, so, in a way, I was happy about that.