Key Points about Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

  • In those with MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks the protective covering of the nerve fibers.
  • MS is a degenerative condition, with no cure, that can lead to disability.
  • Treatment for MS includes treating symptoms of the flare-ups and reducing relapses.
Common related conditions
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Multiple sclerosis – or MS – is a condition that affects the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cords. In people with MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks the myelin (protective covering) that surrounds nerve fibers, which leads to communication problems between your brain and the rest of the body. Many people with MS experience a pattern of flare-ups and remissions that ebbs and flows over their lifetime. Over time, MS can lead to permanent damage and deterioration of the nerves.

Multiple sclerosis causes 

Experts don’t know the cause of multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis risk factors

Factors that put you at an increased risk for developing MS include:

  • Being a smoker
  • Being between the ages of 16 and 55
  • Being female
  • Being of Northern European descent
  • Having a history of Epstein-Barr
  • Having a parent or sibling with MS
  • Having inflammatory bowel disease
  • Having thyroid disease
  • Having type 1 diabetes
  • Living in a temperate climate, including Canada and the northern United States
  • Not getting enough vitamin D and sunlight exposure

Multiple sclerosis symptoms

The symptoms of MS vary widely from person to person, and can include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Double vision
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling of an electric shock during certain neck movements, such as bending the neck forward
  • Numbness or weakness in the arms or legs that usually occurs on one side of the body at a time
  • Numbness or weakness in the trunk of the body
  • Partial or total loss of vision, typically in one eye at a time
  • Problems with sexual, bowel or bladder function
  • Slurred vision
  • Tingling or pain
  • Tremor (uncontrolled shaking
  • Trouble with coordination
  • Unsteady gait (walking)

Multiple sclerosis diagnosis

Your neurologist may use one or more of the following diagnostic tools to diagnose MS:

Physical examination. Your neurologist will perform a comprehensive physical exam, including asking questions about your personal and family health histories. 

Blood tests. Your neurologist may use blood tests to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms.

Spinal tap (lumbar puncture). Your neurologist may take a small sample of the fluid in your spinal cord, which can reveal abnormalities in antibodies that are associated with MS.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Your specialist may recommend an MRI, which can show areas of MS lesions on your brain or spinal cord.

Evoked potential tests. These tests record your nervous system’s electrical signals. These electrical signals – and how quickly they occur –show how your body handles and interprets stimuli.

Multiple sclerosis treatment

There is currently no cure for MS. Treatments generally focuses on controlling MS flare-ups and modifying the progression of the disease:

Corticosteroids. Your neurologist may prescribe corticosteroids to reduce nerve inflammation caused by MS.

Plasma exchange. Also known as plasmapheresis, this process involves removing part of your blood (plasma), mixing the plasma with a protein solution (albumin) and returning the plasma to your body. This process can help reduce symptoms related to MS flare-ups.

Medicine to adjust progression. Your specialist may recommend a medication – such as ocrelizumab – to modify the progression of the disease. Taking this medication has been shown to reduce your chances of an MS relapse. There are other types of medicines used to help reduce MS flare-ups, all with various risks and side effects.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing a neurologist for more specialized treatment.