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Understanding Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the brain and spinal cord. Unfortunately, there is no cure for MS. But there are many treatments, and many people with MS can manage their symptoms and lead active, healthy lives. Read on to learn more about MS and its treatments.

Neuron covered with normal myelin covering  meeting with end of another neuron with damaged myelin. Large arrow shows strong message traveling down normal neuron. Small, wavy arrow shows slowed message in damaged neuron.

What Is MS?

The brain is the body’s control center. Each part of the brain controls specific functions. These include movement, balance, sensation, and reasoning. The brain controls these functions by sending and receiving messages through nerves. Nerves have a protective covering (myelin). With MS, the myelin on nerves in the brain and spinal cord is damaged. The loss of this covering causes messages traveling along affected nerves to slow or stop. This results in MS symptoms.

Causes and Risk Factors for MS

The cause of MS is unknown. But most research suggests that MS is an autoimmune disease. This means the body’s immune system attacks and destroys myelin by mistake. MS most often affects adults between the ages of 20 and 40. It occurs in women more often than men. It also is more likely to occur if a person has a family history of MS, and in smokers.

Types of MS

There are three main types of MS. These are:

  • Relapsing-Remitting. This type of MS is the most common. It is marked by isolated episodes of symptoms (also called attacks or flare-ups). Periods of partial or complete recovery follow these episodes. Each attack may be worse than the one before it.

  • Primary-Progressive. This type of MS is marked by a slow onset of symptoms that gradually worsen over time. There are no periods of recovery.

  • Secondary-Progressive. This type of MS begins as relapsing-remitting MS. After a period of stability, the disease steadily worsens. About half the patients with relapsing-remitting MS have secondary-progressive MS within 10 years of their first attack. About all of them have it within 25 years.

  • Progressive-relapsing. This type of MS includes both slowly progressive symptoms and episodic flare-ups together. 

Symptoms of MS

The symptoms of MS vary from person to person. The type of symptoms a person has depends on the location and extent of damage to the nerves within the brain and spinal cord. A person can also have different symptoms during the course of the disease. Symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue (tiredness)

  • Numbness, tingling, or loss of sensation

  • Pain

  • Muscle spasms or weakness in the arms, legs, or both

  • Vision problems, such as rapid eye movements, double vision, or vision loss

  • Balance and coordination problems

  • Problems walking or moving the arms, legs, or both

  • Bowel and bladder control problems

  • Problems with sexual function

  • Dizziness

  • Trouble concentrating, focusing, or remembering things

  • Trouble reasoning and solving problems

  • Trouble speaking or swallowing

  • Depression

Diagnosing MS

MS can be hard to diagnose. Symptoms come and go. They also may be similar to those of other health problems. A diagnosis of MS is not made unless a person has had at least two or more separate episodes of MS symptoms. To confirm a diagnosis of MS, your doctor will take a detailed history of symptoms. Your doctor will also perform a neurologic exam to check your muscle strength, balance, coordination, and reflexes. Skills such as thinking, memory, vision, hearing, and talking are also checked. In addition, health care providers may also give you the following tests:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan: This test provides detailed pictures of the brain and spinal cord. It helps check for areas of damaged nerves. These are often referred to as lesions or plaques.

  • Evoked potentials: These tests check how fast and well your body’s nerves respond to specific types of sensory stimulation, such as flashing lights, loud sounds, or little electric shocks.

  • Spinal tap (also called lumbar puncture): This test checks the health of the fluid around your brain and spinal cord.for signs of nerve sheath damage (demyelination).

  • Blood tests: These help rule out other causes of the symptoms.

Treating MS

The goal of treatment is to manage your symptoms and to slow the rate at which the disease worsens. You can manage your symptoms in one or more of the following ways:

  • Medications: Some medications help keep your body’s immune system from attacking the myelin. This may reduce the frequency and severity of attacks. Other medications help control symptoms or relieve pain when attacks occur.

  • Rehabilitation (rehab): Symptoms or problems due to MS can interfere with daily living. Rehab, which includes physical, occupational, or speech therapy, can help you maintain strength and function. If needed, your doctor will prescribe aids such as canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. You can also make changes in your work or living space to improve your safety.

  • Supportive services: These include counseling and support groups to help you cope with the challenges of living with MS. Family members and friends may also benefit from these services.

  • Lifestyle changes: Making certain changes in your lifestyle and daily routine may help you manage symptoms. This includes getting enough rest and regular exercise. It also includes eating healthy foods and reducing stress. Identifying and avoiding triggers of MS episodes can also help.

  • Other treatments: Researchers are exploring new treatments for MS. Many of these are in clinical trials. This means they are being tested for safety and effectiveness. Your doctor can provide more information about any treatments that might be an option for you.

Long-term Concerns

The course of MS is unpredictable, and your experience will be different from others' experiences. In general, if you have MS, you should have regular visits with your doctor. Your doctor will monitor your symptoms and review the effectiveness of  your medications and other treatments. MS symptoms may get worse as your disease progresses. If this happens, you may need more aggressive care and treatments. Visit the resources below to learn more about MS and what advances researches are making to find a cure.

Resources for More Information About MS

National Multiple Sclerosis Society

Multiple Sclerosis Foundation

Multiple Sclerosis Association of America

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Online Medical Reviewer: newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Ziegler, Olivia Walton, MS, PA-C
Last Review Date: 3/27/2013
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