What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to your nerves, which leads to communication problems between your brain and your central nervous system. Although there is no cure for MS, a variety of treatments are available to help you recover from attacks, manage symptoms, and change or slow the progression of the disease.


Symptoms

Symptoms of MS vary depending on the severity of your condition and the areas of your body that are affected. Symptoms of MS may include:

  • Difficulty speaking or slurred speech
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Problems with sexual function
  • Problems with bowel and bladder function

Symptoms that affect movement may include:

  • Numbness, tingling, pain, or weakness in one or more limbs, which often occurs on one side of your body at a time
  • Numbness, tingling, pain, or weakness of your legs or trunk
  • Electric-shock-like sensations that happen when you bend your neck forward or with other neck movements
  • Tremor
  • Loss of coordination
  • Difficulty walking
  • Problems with balance

Symptoms that affect vision may include:

  • Pain during eye movement
  • Partial or complete vision loss, which often occurs in one eye at a time
  • Double vision
  • Blurry vision

Causes and Risk Factors

The cause of MS is unclear. However, physicians know that MS symptoms result from an immune system problem that leads to the destruction of myelin, a substance that coats and protects nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. When myelin is damaged, it leaves the nerve fiber exposed and results in slowed or blocked nerve signals that lead to MS symptoms.

You may be at a higher risk of developing MS if you have a parent or sibling with the condition. Women are more likely to develop MS than men.


Diagnosis

There is no specific test that is used to diagnose MS. Your doctor may start by taking a detailed medical history and performing a physical exam. Your doctor may then begin ruling out other conditions by performing exams or ordering tests, including:

  • Neurological exams. Neurological exams will differ depending on your age, but older children and adults will be asked to answer questions and complete simple tasks to test movement, muscle condition, the function of each of the senses, and general neurological well-being.
  • Cognitive tests. Cognitive tests assess your memory and concentration.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses radio waves and magnetic fields to create detailed images of your body. An MRI of your brain may be ordered to check for abnormalities.
  • Blood test. Your doctor may order blood tests to look for problems.
  • Lumbar puncture. A lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, involves removing a sample of your cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from around your spinal cord and testing it to check for abnormalities.
  • Evoked potentials study. An evoked potentials study measures electrical activity in your brain and nerves in response to sight, sound, or touch.

Treatment

Although there is no cure for MS, treatments can help you recover from attacks more quickly, manage symptoms, and change or slow the progression of the disease. Treatments include:

  • Medication. Medications can be used to control nerve inflammation and other symptoms, reduce the rate of relapse, or modify the progression of the disease. Depending on the type of medication you receive, it may be administered orally, injected into your muscle, or given through an IV.
  • Physical or occupational therapy. Physical therapy can help people with MS to maintain as much mobility, strength, and flexibility as possible. Occupational therapy can help people with MS learn to use assistive devices that help them perform daily tasks.
  • Lifestyle changes. Lifestyle modifications — such as getting plenty of sleep, exercising, avoiding high temperatures, reducing stress, and eating a balanced diet — can help control symptoms in some people with MS.