What is multiple sclerosis (MS)?

Multiple sclerosis, also known as MS, is a neurological condition that affects the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord). Multiple sclerosis occurs when the body’s immune system attacks and damages myelin. Myelin is a protective sheath that surrounds the body’s nerve fibers. As the myelin wears down, you will start experiencing symptoms of MS. As the disease progresses, the nerves may also deteriorate.

There are approximately 400,000 cases of MS in the United States. More women develop the condition than men and frequently are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40.

Common related conditions
Alzheimer's Disease Huntington's Disease Parkinson's Disease

Causes of multiple sclerosis (MS)

The exact cause of MS is not known, but there are links to genetics and environmental factors.

Risk factors for multiple sclerosis (MS)

There are a variety of factors that can increase your likelihood of developing multiple sclerosis including:

  • Age — most MS patients are between 15 and 60 years old.
  • Sex — women are twice as likely as men to develop MS.
  • Family history — people with a family history (parent or sibling) of multiple sclerosis are more likely to develop it as well.
  • Geographic location — MS becomes more common the farther you get away from the equator.
  • Ethnicity — northern Europeans are the group most likely to develop multiple sclerosis.

Symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS)

Symptoms of multiple sclerosis vary from person to person and can change in intensity as the disease progresses. The most common symptoms of multiple sclerosis include:

  • Cognitive difficulties — people with multiple sclerosis often suffer from memory loss, have trouble concentrating, are not able to pay attention and have trouble processing information.
  • Vision problems — people with multiple sclerosis may experience loss of vision, blurred vision, blindness in one eye or double vision.
  • Motor or movement issues — people with MS often have issues with basic movement such as walking and can suffer from spasms or other involuntary movements such as tremors or uncontrollable shaking.
  • Fatigue — unexplainable fatigue is one of the first early signs of multiple sclerosis, patients with MS often experience more intense fatigue as the disease progresses.
  • Pain — people with MS often present with stabbing pain across the body including the face, lower back and musculoskeletal system.
  • Bladder and bowel problems — patients with MS often experience bladder dysfunction that presents as incontinence, inability to empty bladder, constipation, diarrhea and having to urinate frequently.

Diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS)

Multiple sclerosis is challenging to diagnose because early symptoms come and go and can mimic symptoms for other conditions. If your doctor suspects you have MS, he or she will refer you to a neurologist for diagnosis and treatment. Your neurologist will perform a full neurological exam, take your medical history (including your family history) and order diagnostic testing such as:

  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture) — can help rule out other conditions with symptoms similar to MS, as well as show abnormalities in the spinal fluid that can indicate MS.
  • Sensory evoked potential test — evaluates the condition of your peripheral nerves and spinal cord, and can determine how the brain transmits body sensations through the peripheral nerves.
  • MRI — best test to confirm a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis; the scan can take pictures of lesions caused by MS in the brain.

Treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS)

There is currently not a cure for multiple sclerosis. The goals of treatment are to manage symptoms, slow the progression of the disease and improve quality of life.

Multiple sclerosis treatments include:

  • Corticosteroids - nerve inflammation can be treated with oral or IV corticosteroids.
  • Plasma exchange - during a plasma exchange, the procedure separates the plasma from your blood cells and then mixes the blood cells with albumin (protein solution) and injects it back into the body.

Medication for multiple sclerosis (MS)

Medication is used to treat multiple sclerosis in a variety of ways.

  • Modify the progression of MS — there are a variety of oral, injectable and infused medications that can modify the course of MS. Your doctor will work with you to determine the most appropriate treatment plan for your case.
  • Manage relapses — if you are suffering from multiple relapses that are causing severe symptoms such as loss of vision or severe weakness, you may need a treatment to manage the relapses. IV corticosteroids (given at high doses for three to five days) are the most commonly used treatment for MS relapses.
  • Manage symptoms — other medications may be necessary to treat other conditions that may result from MS, including bladder problems, bowel dysfunction, depression, sexual dysfunction, vertigo, tremors, pain, itching, fatigue and emotional changes.

Find a neurologist nearby

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