What Is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, often disabling, inflammatory neurological disorder of the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord and optic nerves). MS damages the protective insulation (called myelin) that surrounds the nerves and may also damage the nerves. This process is called demyelination and scarring often occurs as the disease progresses. MS interferes with the ability of nerve cells to communicate with each other, producing a variety of symptoms.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS may affect nearly 1 million adults in the United States and more than 2.3 million people worldwide. Most diagnoses are made between the ages of 20 and 50, and women are at least two to three times more likely to have MS than men.

What Causes Multiple Sclerosis?

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, while the cause of MS is still unknown, scientists believe that the interaction of several different factors may be involved, including:

  • Immunologic factors: In MS, an abnormal immune-mediated response attacks the myelin coating around nerve fibers in the central nervous system, as well as the nerve fibers themselves.
  • Environmental factors: MS is known to occur more frequently in colder climates that are farther from the equator. Lack of Vitamin D (including from lack of sunlight exposure) and smoking may be risk factors.
  • Infectious factors: Scientists are exploring possible links between viruses, infections and MS, but nothing definitive has been proven.
  • Genetic factors: While MS is not hereditary, studies have found that populations with higher rates of MS tend to have a higher prevalence of certain genes.

What Are the Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis?

MS symptoms vary in type, severity and duration from one individual to another, depending on the amount of damage and the specific nerves affected.

Multiple sclerosis symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Balance problems
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Tingling or pain in parts of the body
  • Spasticity
  • Dizziness and vertigo
  • Bladder and bowel problems
  • Depression
  • Cognitive and emotional changes
  • Tremor, lack of coordination
  • Numbness or weakness in one or more limbs--typically on one side of the body at a time or on lower half of the body
  • Partial or complete loss of vision, usually in one eye at a time

Progression and Patterns of MS Symptoms

The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS are unpredictable, varying from person to person and from time to time in the same person. Multiple sclerosis symptoms often come and go, sometimes disappearing for extended periods of time before recurring. Most patients have episodic patterns of attack and remission throughout the course of the disease, while others may have a form of the disease that progresses more slowly.

How Is Multiple Sclerosis Diagnosed?

Multiple sclerosis is one of the most common disorders of the central nervous system in younger adults, affecting three times as many women as men.

At this time, there is no single, definitive laboratory test to diagnose MS and no cure for the disease. To diagnose MS, your doctor performs a neurologic examination and review of your medical history.

How Is Multiple Sclerosis Treated?

If you are living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), you know it can make your daily activities difficult. The varied and sometimes unpredictable nature of the illness means that the physical, psychological and neuropsychological implications can be different for each patient. It is important to identify an appropriate course of treatment that is developed for your specific symptoms.

Read more about Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Treatment and Rehabilitation »

Multiple Sclerosis Treatment Options

Jerry Wolinsky, MD, discusses the latest therapies, symptoms, why it takes so long for discoveries to get from the laboratory to the clinic and what new innovations are on the horizon.

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