MS Cognitive Symptoms: What you need to know

Do you feel like a word is on the tip of your tongue but you can't quite remember it? People with MS can experience cognitive problems and symptoms. There are lots of strategies to help you take control, become more organised and more confident in yourself.

Brain fog

Overview

MS cognitive symptoms refers to problems you may have with your thinking and memory. For most people with MS, cognitive symptoms are mild. There are just a few people with MS for whom the changes in cognitive ability will be more of a challenge.

Cognitive problems with MS

Cognitive problems with MS can impact the way we:

  • Multitask

  • Remember

  • Focus and concentrate

  • Learn

  • Judge distances

  • Understand language

  • Solve problems

  • Plan

  • Recognise objects

This list varies naturally from person to person without MS. Our cognitive behaviour is considered to be normal if we cope well with everyday life. 

What are the most common cognitive problems?

Like other symptoms of MS – just because you experience one cognitive symptom, doesn’t mean you can expect them all. 

The least common cognitive problems among people with MS are judging distances and recognising what you see. 

The following symptoms are the most common:

  • Difficulty concentrating and short attention span

People with MS find that they can struggle to concentrate, especially if they are in a noisy, crowded room. 

There are ways of making it easier, such as dividing a to-do list into manageable tasks and making sure there is no background noise when you make a phone call.

  • Memory problems

With MS, memory problems that are common are things like forgetting to carry out something you had planned to do, or forgetting what happened at a recent event. Luckily smartphones, apps or even a notice board or chalkboard can help to remind you or record information.

  • Trouble following complex instructions

You may find that if information is given rapidly, or there is a great deal of information, that you will have difficulty in understanding what applies to you and you will struggle to follow and remember them. Reducing distractions can help you focus.

  • Word finding

Even for those people without MS, this can be a common problem, especially when feeling tired. It can help to try to relax, take the pressure off yourself, and describe the word instead. 

  • Problem solving and planning

Sometimes it may be hard for you to see how a certain action will impact you in the future and this can mean that decision making is difficult. Talk to close friends and family to see if they have noticed you struggling as it might not be something you have noticed. Then when you need to make an important decision, just run it by them to double check you haven’t missed anything.

MS cognitive testing

MS cognitive testing by a doctor is supported by scientific evidence and helps to find the best way to manage the cognitive problems. They will find out more about your cognitive function using a series of tests which can take several hours. They will be looking to understand what loss of function is related to MS, and what could be due to other possible causes of cognitive problems such as depression, medications, stress and anxiety or fatigue.

 Cognitive testing can help by:

  • Early screening and continual monitoring

  • Educating both the person with MS and their family 

  • A comprehensive evaluation that will help to find specific ways of managing your individual symptoms 

How can I manage my cognitive issues?

Fortunately, there are a number of compensatory strategies that you can use to help with any cognitive issues related to MS so that you can become more organised than someone without MS.

  • Changes in your diet, for example taking an Omega-3 fatty acid supplement which is good for the health of your brain, amongst other things.

  • Create a routine and keep things in the same place so that everything in your home or office has its place. 

  • Try visual and verbal associations when consciously trying to remember something - mental pictures and rhymes can help.

  • Use smartphone apps for planning and reminders.

  • Don’t undertake tasks when you are feeling MS fatigue or anxiety.

  • If heat makes your symptoms worse, use fans or air conditioning to cool yourself down.

  • Boost your cognitive reserve by reading and doing puzzles.

  • Use a sat-nav to guide you on journeys, and Google Maps when walking somewhere.

  • If you find yourself bumping into door frames, slow down when moving through doors and concentrate on where your body is moving.

Managing any stress you may be feeling will also help you to think more clearly. You will also regain hope and enthusiasm as you see the difference it makes. Here are some enjoyable ways of encouraging your mind and body to relax:

  • Aromatherapy

  • Spending some time outside connecting with nature – not only will it relax you but it will also help you to get that vital dose of vitamin D to help with your MS symptoms. 

  • Making sure you incorporate physical exercise into your daily routine as it helps to keep your brain healthy

  • Meditation

  • Breathing exercises

  • Gentle exercises such as yoga positions

  • Mindfulness

What are the next steps?

 

If it seems like there is too much information and you don’t know where to start, read through our next steps – we can help you.


Further reading