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Michelle Obama's New Book Puts a Spotlight on Multiple Sclerosis and Her Father's Late Diagnosis: Here Are 5 Early Signs of the Disease

Tasos Katopodis | Stringer | Getty Images

With the arrival of Michelle Obama's new memoir, "The Light We Carry," readers will get a closer look at the illness that changed her father's quality of life – and inevitably her family's as well.

At age four or five, Michelle Obama's dad began using a cane to maintain balance while walking, which he much later found out was as a result of multiple sclerosis (MS). 

"Slowly and silently and probably long before he received a formal diagnosis, MS was undermining his body, eating away at his central nervous system and weakening his legs as he went about his everyday business," the former First Lady wrote in her introduction.

Her family remained resilient by viewing her father's cane as "just a tool," similar to that of her mother's spatula and her grandfather's hammer. But even then, his condition's effects on their family were undeniable.

"We were starting to understand that Dad's illness left us more vulnerable as a family, less protected," she wrote.

"In an emergency, it'd be harder for him to leap into action and save us from a fire or an intruder. We were learning that life was not in our control."

The fear that surrounded Michelle Obama's family about her father's health is something that many families with loved ones living with multiple sclerosis face, according to Dr. Lauren B. Krupp, the Nancy Glickenhaus Pier Professor of Pediatric Neuropsychiatry and director of the Multiple Sclerosis Comprehensive Care Center at NYU Langone Health.

Here are some early signs to look out for and common symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

5 early signs of multiple sclerosis

  1. Vision loss/vision blurring
  2. Spinal cord dysfunction with weakness or sensory changes in both legs
  3. Numbness in legs or arms
  4. Loss of balance/vertigo
  5. Sensory disturbances along your face such as mild difficulty moving eyes from left to right

"To be considered an MS presentation, we think of 24 hours as a minimum to distinguish it from other things like hemorrhage or stroke," says Krupp.

Early signs of MS can be very subtle or more pronounced, but typically improve over days and weeks, Krupp adds. But, symptoms tend to increase or progress if untreated as time passes, she says.

7 symptoms of MS

  1. Severe fatigue
  2. Motor function problems: stiffness and difficulty walking
  3. Bladder problems
  4. Vision concerns
  5. Sexual problems/infrequency
  6. Difficulty with arm motion
  7. Mild cognitive issues: speaking slowly or taking a longer time to process thoughts

Currently, there isn't a cure for multiple sclerosis, says Krupp, but "the data is really pretty strong that, at the group level, starting treatment early, and starting treatment with high efficacy options, as opposed to weaker treatments, leads to better long-term outcomes."

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