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What is Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?

Multiple sclerosis (or MS) is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from one person to another. Today, new treatments and advances in research are giving hope to people affected by the disease.

 


Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

In multiple sclerosis, damage to the myelin in the central nervous system (CNS), and to the nerve fibers themselves, interferes with the transmission of nerve signals between the brain and spinal cord and other parts of the body. This disruption of nerve signals produces the primary symptoms of MS, which vary depending on where the damage has occurred. It is important to understand that although a wide range of symptoms can occur, a given individual may experience only some of the symptoms and never have others. Some symptoms may occur once, resolve, and never return. Because MS is such an individual disease, it is not helpful to compare yourself with other people who have MS.

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What Causes MS?

While the cause of MS is still not known, scientists believe that a combination of several factors may be involved. Studies are ongoing in the areas of immunology (the science of the body’s immune system), epidemiology (that looks at patterns of disease in the population), and genetics in an effort to answer this important question. Understanding what causes MS will be an important step toward finding more effective ways to treat it and—ultimately—cure it, or even prevent it from occurring in the first place.

 


Who Gets MS?

In the United States today, there are approximately 400,000 people with multiple sclerosis (MS)—with 200 more people diagnosed every week. Worldwide, MS is thought to affect more than 2.5 million people. While the disease is not contagious or directly inherited, epidemiologists—the scientists who study patterns of disease—have identified factors in the distribution of MS around the world that may eventually help determine what causes the disease. These factors include gender, genetics, age, geography, and ethnic background.

 


How is MS Diagnosed?

At this time, there are no symptoms, physical findings or laboratory tests that can, by themselves, determine if a person has MS. The doctor uses several strategies to determine if a person meets the long-established criteria for a diagnosis of MS and to rule out other possible causes of whatever symptoms the person is experiencing. These strategies include a careful medical history, a neurologic exam and various tests, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), evoked potentials (EP) and spinal fluid analysis.

 


The Criteria for a Diagnosis of MS

In order to make a diagnosis of MS, the physician must:

  • Find evidence of damage in at least two separate areas of the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves AND
  • Find evidence that the damage occurred at least one month apart AND
  • Rule out all other possible diagnoses

For more information, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.