Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system).
Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects women more than men. The disorder most commonly begins between ages 20 and 40, but can be seen at any age.
MS is caused by damage to the myelin sheath, the protective covering that surrounds nerve cells. When this nerve covering is damaged, nerve impulses are slowed down or stopped.
MS is a progressive disease, meaning the nerve damage (neurodegeneration) gets worse over time. How quickly MS gets worse varies from person to person.
The nerve damage is caused by inflammation. Inflammation occurs when the body's own immune cells attack the nervous system. Repeated episodes of inflammation can occur along any area of the brain and spinal cord.
Researchers are not sure what triggers the inflammation. The most common theories point to a virus or genetic defect, or a combination of both.
MS is more likely to occur in northern Europe, the northern United States, southern Australia, and New Zealand than in other areas. Geographic studies indicate there may be an environmental factor involved.
People with a family history of MS and those who live in a geographical area with a higher incidence rate for MS have a higher risk of the disease.
Symptoms vary, because the location and severity of each attack can be different. Episodes can last for days, weeks, or months. These episodes alternate with periods of reduced or no symptoms (remissions).
Fever, hot baths, sun exposure, and stress can trigger or worsen attacks.
It is common for the disease to return (relapse). However, the disease may continue to get worse without periods of remission.
Because nerves in any part of the brain or spinal cord may be damaged, patients with multiple sclerosis can have symptoms in many parts of the body.
Bowel and bladder symptoms:
Numbness, tingling, or pain
Other brain and nerve symptoms:
Speech and swallowing symptoms:
Fatigue is a common and bothersome symptoms as MS progresses. It is often worse in the late afternoon.
Symptoms of MS may mimic those of many other nervous system disorders. The disease is diagnosed by ruling out other conditions.
People who have a form of MS called relapsing-remitting may have a history of at least two attacks, separated by a period of reduced or no symptoms.
The health care provider may suspect MS if there are decreases in the function of two different parts of the central nervous system (such as abnormal reflexes) at two different times.
A neurological exam may show reduced nerve function in one area of the body, or spread over many parts of the body. This may include:
An eye examination may show:
Tests to diagnose multiple sclerosis include:
There is no known cure for multiple sclerosis at this time. However, there are therapies that may slow the disease. The goal of treatment is to control symptoms and help you maintain a normal quality of life.
Medications used to slow the progression of multiple sclerosis are taken on a long-term basis, they include:
Steroids may be used to decrease the severity of attacks.
Medications to control symptoms may include:
The following may help MS patients:
Household changes to ensure safety and ease in moving around the home are often needed.
For additional information, see multiple sclerosis resources.
The outcome varies, and is hard to predict. Although the disorder is chronic and incurable, life expectancy can be normal or almost normal. Most people with MS continue to walk and function at work with minimal disability for 20 or more years.
The following typically have the best outlook:
The amount of disability and discomfort depends on:
Most people return to normal or near-normal function between attacks. Slowly, there is greater loss of function with less improvement between attacks. Over time, many require a wheelchair to get around and have a more difficult tijme transferring out of the wheelchair.
Those with a support system are often able to remain in their home.
Call your health care provider if:
MS; Demyelinating disease