What is MS?


March 11, 2021

More than 2.3 million people around the world have multiple sclerosis (MS). Researchers believe this includes at least 1 million American adults.

If you know someone with MS, then you might know the signs and symptoms, or at least understand a bit of what this disease can do to the people you love. If not, then now’s your chance to learn more about MS.

In recognition and support of Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month, here are some things you should know about MS.

Understanding Multiple Sclerosis

Commonly known as MS, multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and the spinal cord.

In MS, the person’s immune system harms the body’s own tissues. 

The protective myelin coating that surrounds nerve fibers gets destroyed. In its place, scar tissue builds up.

As more and more myelin disappears and scar tissue accumulates, the nervous system becomes less able to carry out its basic functions. When the brain and the body can’t communicate like they should, you might imagine this doesn’t bode well for the rest of the body. 

Motor skills, cognitive processes and sensory reception can be affected.

MS Risk Factors

Researchers aren’t yet sure why some people develop MS

There may be a genetic component since your risk increases if you have a close family member with the disease. Also, MS is seen more often in people with Northern European heritage. Having one or more other autoimmune disorders can also increase the likelihood of developing MS. 

Past infection with certain bacteria or viruses may play a role, too. The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is often identified as a potential culprit, but scientists are also investigating other illnesses, such as measles and Chlamydia pneumonia.

Other factors can also affect your risk, like:

  • Being overweight
  • Living in a high-latitude region with a temperate climate
  • Smoking
  • Having a vitamin D deficiency

While you may be able to control some of those factors, that’s no guarantee. The complexity that seems to be involved in the development of MS means there’s no surefire way to prevent it.

Experts might not know exactly what causes MS, but they do know, for example, that women are diagnosed at least two times more frequently than men. Also, most patients start experiencing symptoms when they’re between 20 and 50 years old.

Early Symptoms of MS

Multiple sclerosis doesn’t always follow a straightforward course. If you were talking to a group of people who all had MS and asked about their early symptoms, each one might report a different initial symptom.

That said, one of the most common signs that tips people off to a problem is optic neuritis. It happens when inflammation leads to damage to the optic nerve. This can result in:

  • Eye pain
  • Vision loss in one eye that lasts for a few days or weeks at a time
  • Blurry vision during times of strain or stress
  • Sensation of seeing flashing lights
  • Poor night vision

Of course, MS symptoms don’t always start in the eyes. 

Some people first experience unusual sensations like numb hands, tingling skin or tightness in the chest. Muscles can spasm, twitch or become stiff. And pain may become an unwelcome daily visitor.

Performing daily activities, too, may be difficult for a variety of reasons. Tremors can cause hands and arms to shake uncontrollably. Dizziness can make it harder to get around the room.

Brain symptoms are possible as well. It may seem that it’s harder to think clearly or remember details.

Some people experience bladder or bowel problems with MS. These can include changes in bathroom habits or reduced control when you’re going.

Finally, MS often leads to fatigue. Even when people feel like they’re getting enough rest at night, they may experience overwhelming exhaustion throughout the day.

Progression of Multiple Sclerosis

Receiving an MS diagnosis can feel scary, but there’s good news. Many people can live long, reasonably healthy lives with MS.

Symptoms don’t always progress quickly or to severe levels. In fact, many patients can continue with daily activities.

People with MS may rely on assistive devices, such as walkers, while some who can walk may still use wheelchairs at times. But over 60% of people with MS never fully lose the ability to walk. 

And today, the average lifespan for a person with MS is longer than it used to be. 

That’s because researchers’ understanding of this disease has progressed, and so have treatments. Currently, people with MS live, on average, about 7 years less than their peers. As therapies continue to develop, this gap may shrink even more.

Diagnosing MS

If you start to notice symptoms that might indicate MS, make an appointment with your doctor. Since some MS symptoms can be signs of other things, there’s no point in worrying over what might be. Your doctor can help you figure out where to go from here, or whether there’s anything to worry over in the first place.

A doctor’s visit to rule out (or confirm) MS might simply start with a discussion of family history and the symptoms you’re experiencing. It could also include a physical exam and blood samples.

If your doctor suspects MS after these initial steps, you might have other testing, such as:

  • A lumbar puncture. By examining spinal fluid removed through a lumbar puncture procedure, doctors might be able to determine whether you have certain antibodies with connections to MS. 
  • An MRI. In an MRI, doctors can look for lesions that are affecting your nervous system. 
  • An evoked potential study. This may be used to evaluate how well your nervous system is relaying information to the various parts of your body.

In many cases, these tests will be enough to reach a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. If you have a more complicated case, though, you may need to have additional testing.

Living with MS

Early treatment can make a significant difference in your long-term outcome. By addressing the inflammation associated with MS as soon as possible, you may be able to reduce your symptoms and slow the disease’s advancement.

Today, there are multiple medications available for the treatment of MS. They include prescriptions that you inject, take orally or receive as an infusion. Medications typically work by reducing inflammation.

You can complement prescription drug treatments with other types of care as well:

  • Depending on your symptoms, you might also benefit from speech or cognitive therapy.
  • Eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise and keeping an eye on your stress levels may also help. These general health tips can be especially important for people with MS since the progression of the disease may be closely linked to cardiovascular wellbeing.

One key thing to understand about MS is that it doesn’t always progress in a linear fashion — i.e., it’s not a continuous line of one thing after the next. 

You’ll probably experience periods of remission when your symptoms are less intense. There will also be times when past symptoms flare up or new ones develop. These are known as exacerbations or relapses.

As for living with multiple sclerosis, seeing an MS specialist can be critical for your care. A specialist will understand the ups and downs of this disease and should be knowledgeable about the latest treatments. But a specialist doesn’t work alone. Your MS doctor should be one member of a well-rounded medical team that works together to coordinate your care. And getting the right help from the start may help improve your long-term health.