Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a nervous system disease that affects your brain and spinal cord. It damages the myelin sheath, the material that surrounds and protects your nerve cells. This damage slows down or blocks messages between your brain and your body, leading to the symptoms of MS.
MS affects from 250,000 to 350,000 people in the United States and 2.5 million worldwide.
Multiple sclerosis affects women more than men. It often begins between the ages of 20 and 40. Usually, the disease is mild, but some people lose the ability to write, speak, or walk.
MS is caused by damage to the myelin sheath, the protective covering that surrounds nerve cells. When this nerve covering is damaged, nerve signals slow down or stop.
The nerve damage is caused by inflammation. Inflammation occurs when the body’s own immune cells attack the nervous system. This can occur along any area of the brain, optic nerve, and spinal cord.
It is unknown what exactly causes this to happen. The most common thought is that a virus or gene defect, or both, are to blame. Environmental factors may play a role.
You are slightly more likely to get this condition if you have a family history of MS or live in an part of the world where MS is more common.
Symptoms vary, because the location and severity of each attack can be different. Attacks can last for days, weeks, or months. Attacks are followed by 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.
Nerves in any part of the brain or spinal cord may be damaged. Because of this, MS symptoms can appear in many parts of the body.
- Loss of balance
- Muscle spasms
- Numbness or abnormal sensation in any area
- Problems moving arms or legs
- Problems walking
- Problems with coordination and making small movements
- Tremor in one or more arms or legs
- Weakness in one or more arms or legs
Bowel and bladder symptoms:
- Constipation and stool leakage
- Difficulty beginning to urinate
- Frequent need to urinate
- Strong urge to urinate
- Urine leakage (incontinence)
- Double vision
- Eye discomfort
- Uncontrollable rapid eye movements
- Vision loss (usually affects one eye at a time)
Numbness, tingling, or pain:
- Facial pain
- Painful muscle spasms
- Tingling, crawling, or burning feeling in the arms and legs
Other brain and nerve symptoms:
- Decreased attention span, poor judgment, and memory loss
- Difficulty reasoning and solving problems
- Depression or feelings of sadness
- Dizziness and balance problems
- Hearing loss
- Problems with erections
- Problems with vaginal lubrication
Speech and swallowing symptoms:
- Slurred or difficult-to-understand speech
- Trouble chewing and swallowing
Fatigue is a common and bothersome symptom as MS progresses. It is often worse in the late afternoon.
Exams and Tests
There is no single test for MS. Doctors use a medical history, physical exam, neurological exam, MRI, and other tests to diagnose it.
Tests to diagnose multiple sclerosis include:
- Blood tests to rule out other conditions similar to MS
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) for cerebrospinal fluid tests, including CSF oligoclonal banding
- MRI scan of the brain and MRI scan of the spine are important to help diagnose and follow MS
- Nerve function study (evoked potential test, such as brainstem auditory evoked response)
Symptoms of MS may be mimic those of many other nervous system problems. MS 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 doctor 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.
An exam of the nervous system may show reduced nerve function in one area of the body. Or it may be spread over many parts of the body. This may include:
- Abnormal nerve reflexes
- Decreased ability to move a part of the body
- Decreased or abnormal sensation
- Other loss of nervous system functions
An eye examination may show:
- Abnormal pupil responses
- Changes in the visual fields or eye movements
- Decreased visual acuity
- Problems with the inside parts of the eye
- Rapid eye movements triggered when the eye moves
There is no known cure for multiple sclerosis at this time. But, there are treatments that may slow the disease. The goal of treatment is to control symptoms and help you maintain a normal quality of life.
Medicines are often taken long-term. These include:
- Medicines to slow the disease
- Steroids may be used to decrease the severity of attacks
- Medicines to control symptoms such as muscle spasms, urinary problems, fatigue or mood problems
The following may also be helpful for people with MS:
- Physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and support groups
- Assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, bed lifts, shower chairs, walkers, and wall bars
- A planned exercise program early in the course of the disorder
- A healthy lifestyle, with good nutrition and enough rest and relaxation
- Avoiding fatigue, stress, temperature extremes, and illness
- Changes in what you eat or drink if there are swallowing problems
- Making changes around the home to prevent falls
- Social workers or other counseling services to help you cope with the disorder and get assistance
- Vitamin D or other supplements (talk to your doctor first)
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- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty thinking
- Less and less ability to care for self
- Need for indwelling catheter
- Osteoporosis or thinning of the bones
- Pressure sores
- Side effects of medications used to treat the disorder
- Urinary tract infections
When To Contact A Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if:
- You develop any symptoms of MS
- Symptoms get worse, even with treatment
- The condition worsens to the point when home care is no longer possible
Without a clearly defined cause of multiple sclerosis, ways to prevent this disease have not yet been identified. Exercising regularly, getting sufficient sleep, or eating healthy meals will be of long-term benefit for many people, but have not been shown to be of help to prevent the development of multiple sclerosis.