Warning Signs Christina Applegate Says She Missed Before Her MS Diagnosis

In the summer of 2021, actress Christina Applegate announced that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease (per The New York Times). The diagnosis had caused production of the third season of the show she was starring in, "Dead to Me," to stop for months. And now, she says that there were some warning signs she missed early on, not realizing they were symptoms of the condition.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the central nervous system (via Mayo Clinic). This causes the protective layers around the nerves to deteriorate, which makes it difficult for your brain to communicate with the rest of your body. This can lead to symptoms like numbness on one side of the body, lack of coordination, loss of vision, slurred speech, dizziness, and fatigue. While there are different types of MS, most people will go through periods of new or worsening symptoms followed by periods of remission. The average age of onset is between 20 and 40 years, and women are two to three times more likely to develop MS.

While there's no cure for MS, treatment focuses on managing symptoms and slowing the progression of the illness (via Mayo Clinic). According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, over one million American adults live with MS.

Applegate's early symptoms of MS

The "Married with Children" actress said that during the filming of the first season of "Dead to Me," she started noticing that she was losing her balance while filming a dance scene (via The New York Times). Later, she noticed the same thing while playing tennis. Numbness and tingling in her limbs continued for several years until she was diagnosed with MS during the production of the third and final season. But she never realized these were symptoms of MS, telling The New York Times that she didn't really pay attention to them.

Applegate's diagnosis ceased production of the third and final season of "Dead to Me" for five months, which she said was time she needed to process the loss. But still, she said she doesn't feel like she has accepted the reality of her illness, and doesn't plan to. "Dead to Me" season three was released on Netflix in November, which Applegate said would be the first time viewers would see her in this new way — 40 pounds heavier and unable to walk without a cane. She told the New York Times that finishing filming the season was the hardest thing she'd ever done, and she doesn't even plan to watch the season herself. But she hopes that despite having an obvious illness on screen, viewers will be able to look past it and say farewell to the show.

Why Applegate may have overlooked her MS symptoms

Although Christina Applegate expressed regrets about not paying more attention to her early symptoms of multiple sclerosis, she may not be the only one to have a difficult time recognizing their symptoms. According to a 2021 study published in Neurology, it can surprisingly take years for symptoms to be identified as being caused by MS. It's likely that this is related to the complexity of the disease. A Hartford HealthCare MS specialist, Brian Wong, MD, explains that symptoms of MS are often misinterpreted as being caused by other medical conditions or life events due to the fact that they can be extremely broad and hard to diagnose. For example, the fatigue, muscle aches, and cognitive impairment that are commonly associated with MS can also be observed in individuals who are sleep-deprived or working at physically strenuous jobs.

What makes MS even more challenging to diagnose is how drastically symptoms can also vary from person to person, since MS can strike anywhere in the central nervous system (per Rush). Besides MS's most common symptoms of difficulty walking and blurred vision, individuals may also experience depression, bowel problems, and sexual difficulties in the early stages of the disease. There's a higher likelihood of misdiagnosing these symptoms because they are so vast and can also be associated with a variety of other medical conditions. However, it's possible that having a better understanding of the various symptoms of MS could contribute to an earlier diagnosis.

The importance of an early diagnosis

Having an early multiple sclerosis diagnosis and early intervention is crucial, as Applegate's story illustrates. MS can be slowed in its progression if it's identified and treated early, explains Orlando Health.

Awareness of the disease could increase the chances of an earlier diagnosis, despite the disorder's complexity. When someone is familiar with the symptoms of MS, they may be more likely to recognize them if it happens to them. According to Healthline, anyone who experiences abnormal symptoms that could be related to MS should seek medical attention from their doctor immediately, especially if they have a family member with the disease. A doctor may start by ruling out other medical conditions by taking a blood test before conducting a spinal tap, MRI, or evoked potential test (per Mayo Clinic). Abnormal antibodies related to MS can be detected in a spinal tap, and MRI scans can reveal lesions in the brain caused by MS.

Applegate's story has certainly spread public awareness about the disease and the importance of paying close attention to symptoms. Despite her diagnosis, she has continued to inspire others with her unwavering strength and her willingness to openly share about her health struggles. "I turned 50 today. And I have MS. It's been a hard one," she wrote on Twitter a few months after her diagnosis. "Many are hurting today, and I am thinking of you. May we find that strength to lift our heads up."