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Multiple Sclerosis

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. This abnormal response of the immune system damages nerve fibers and their protective coating, called the myelin sheath. The damaged myelin forms scar tissue (sclerosis). This damage can distort and interrupt nerve impulses that travel to and from the central nervous system, causing a variety of symptoms.The exact antigen, or the target that the immune cells are sensitized to attack, is unknown. Some studies suggest that MS may be caused by early exposure to some environmental trigger in genetically susceptible individuals.

What are the different types of MS?

Four disease courses have been identified in multiple sclerosis:

  • Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS)–This is the most common form of MS (85 percent of all cases). It is characterized by periods of active inflammation, or relapses, followed by periods of little or no discomfort.
  • Primary-progressive MS (PPMS)–About 10 percent of people with MS are diagnosed with PPMS. This is characterized by symptoms that worsen slowly and gradually. There may be brief periods of improvement, but the general course of the disease is defined by decreasing functionality.
  • Secondary-progressive MS (SPMS)–This develops after the primary relapsing-remitting disease course. Most cases of RRMS will eventually evolve into SPMS.
  • Progressive-relapsing MS (PPMS)–This is the least common disease course. It combines the progressive features of PPMS with occasional relapses over time. Recovery after an attack is sometimes but not always noted.

Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms

Multiple sclerosis symptoms are variable and unpredictable. They range from mild to severe and can change over time. Some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Walking (gait) difficulties
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Muscle spasms
  • Weakness
  • Vision problems
  • Dizziness and vertigo
  • Coordination problems
  • Bladder problems
  • Bowel problems
  • Sexual problems
  • Chronic pain
  • Cognitive changes
  • Emotional changes
  • Depression

Less common symptoms include:

  • Speech problems
  • Swallowing problems
  • Tremor
  • Seizures
  • Breathing problems
  • Itching
  • Headache
  • Hearing loss

Symptoms vary widely from person to person, so Multiple Sclerosis is not diagnosed based on symptoms alone. Contact a medical professional if you are experiencing any symptoms.

Treatments for Multiple Sclerosis

There is no cure for multiple sclerosis. Medications may be given to speed up your recovery after attacks, slow the progression of the disease, and manage your multiple sclerosis symptoms. Physical therapy and exercise may help preserve muscle function.

Additional Information

How common is multiple sclerosis?

MS affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide. The average person has about a one in 750 chance of developing MS. The actual number of people with MS may be higher due to incorrect or missed diagnoses.

Who gets multiple sclerosis?

Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, but the disease can occur in children and older adults. MS occurs in most ethnic groups, but it is most common in white people of Northern European ancestry. It is at least two to three times more common in women than in men. Genetic factors are thought to play a significant role in determining who develops MS.

How is multiple sclerosis diagnosed?

There is no single symptom, physical finding, or laboratory test that can determine if you have MS. Your doctor may use the following to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms and reach a diagnosis:

  • Medical history
  • Neurological exam
  • MRI scan
  • Spinal fluid analysis
  • Evoked potential tests
  • Blood tests

Request an Appointment with a Multiple Sclerosis Specialist

Medically Reviewed by Aimee Borazanci, MD on January 12, 2020