Frequently Asked Questions About Multiple Sclerosis


Chris Iliades, MD

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If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), the first step toward managing your condition is learning as much as you can about it. MS is an autoimmune disease, which means your body's defense system mistakenly attacks your own normal tissues. MS damages the tissues of the brain and spinal cord. Here's some basic information to start getting educated about MS.

Who gets MS?

About 400,000 Americans are living with MS, and about twice as many women are affected as men. Most people are diagnosed between age 20 and 50. MS occurs in many ethnic groups, but is most common in Caucasians with northern European ancestors. You are slightly more likely to get MS if you have a family history of the disease, but there are no known risk factors other than that.

What causes MS symptoms?

Cells from your immune system attack the myelin (protective lining) around the nerves of your brain and spinal cord. Over time these myelin sheaths deteriorate, and this interferes with nerve signals. Symptoms of MS depend on where the attacks occur and how much damage they cause.

What are the symptoms of MS?

MS symptoms vary from person to person and can change over time. They can also come and go and range from minor to disabling. Among the most common symptoms in the early stage of MS are numbness, tingling, weakness, a feeling of extreme fatigue, vision problems, dizziness, pain in the neck and spine, and bladder problems.

How is MS diagnosed?

MS is hard to diagnose because early symptoms come and go and can mimic many other medical problems. Also, there isn't one specific test to diagnose MS. Usually a series of tests is necessary – along with your doctor's review of your signs and symptoms, as well as a comprehensive neurologic examination. A neurologist, or nerve disease specialist, is the type of doctor who usually makes an MS diagnosis. Neurologists use two important tests to make this determination: an MRI (which uses radio waves and a computer to create images of the brain) and an examination of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

How is MS treated?

There is no cure for MS yet, but there are many good treatments. Long-term medications called disease-modifying drugs slow down the progression of MS and should be started as early as possible after the diagnosis of MS is confirmed. Heavy doses of anti-inflammatory drugs, called corticosteroids, are used to treat the flare-ups of MS symptoms known as relapses. Other drugs, along with rehabilitation therapies and lifestyle changes, can help you better manage the day-to-day symptoms of MS.

What makes MS come and go?

Eighty-five percent of people diagnosed with MS have relapsing-remitting MS, the type of MS that comes and goes. Doctors don't know exactly why MS flares up and then subsides, but some believe that MS symptoms may be triggered by infection, heat exposure, and possibly stress. It's called a relapse if you suddenly have new symptoms, if old symptoms return, or if your day-to-day symptoms get worse for more than 24 hours. After a relapse your symptoms may go into remission, which means they are completely gone for a certain period of time.

What is the long-term outlook for people with MS?

The prognosis, or long-term outlook, is much brighter than it used to be. Except in rare cases, MS is not considered a fatal disease. Most people with MS do not become severely disabled and do not have a shorter lifespan than people without MS. Most people with MS will never need a wheelchair. Factors that make a better outcome more likely include being a woman, being diagnosed before age 30, having a relapsing-remitting pattern, and having infrequent relapses.

Will there be a cure for MS in my lifetime?

MS is an active area of research, and there have been major breakthroughs in MS treatment over the last few years. New drugs and treatments are in development and, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, progress toward finding a cure for MS is very encouraging. For that reason alone you should commit to taking the best possible care of yourself.

Key Takeaways

  • About 400,000 Americans are currently living with MS.

  • Symptoms of MS come and go unpredictably and are different from person to person.

  • Treatments can slow down the disease and help you manage symptoms.

  • For most people, MS is not a fatal disease and will not lead to severe disability.

  • Advances in MS research make the chance of a cure a real possibility.
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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 17, 2017

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