Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, disabling disease of the central nervous system. The disease causes inflammation, destruction, and scarring of the sheath that covers nerve fibers, called myelin, in the brain and spinal cord. As a result, electrical signals from the brain are slowed or blocked from reaching the eyes, muscles, and other parts of the body.
Nerve Fiber (Neuron)© 2009 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.
There are several types of MS:
Relapsing-remitting MS—Symptoms suddenly reappear every few years, last for a few weeks or months, then go back into remission. Symptoms sometimes worsen with each occurrence.
Primary progressive MS—Symptoms gradually worsen after symptoms first appear. Relapses and remissions usually do not occur.
Secondary progressive MS—After years of relapses and remissions, symptoms suddenly begin to progressively worsen.
Progressive relapsing MS—Symptoms gradually worsen after symptoms first appear. One or more relapses may also occur.
Malfunction of the body's immune system seems to be the cause of MS, but the exact cause of this malfunction is unknown.
The following conditions may contribute to MS:
Viral or other infection
Genetic factors (heredity)
Degeneration of parts of the nervous system
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
Risk factors for MS include:
Age: 15-50 years old
Exposure to certain viruses
Family members who have MS
Northern European descent
Growing up in a colder climate, as opposed to a tropical climate
Symptoms may range from mild to severe and may include:
Numbness or tingling in the face or limbs
Impaired vision in one or both eyes, including:
Loss of vision
Incoordination or falling
Trouble walking or maintaining balance
Weakness in one or more limbs
Bladder problems including:
Bowel problems, including
constipation Sexual dysfunction
Forgetfulness, memory loss, and confusion
Difficulty concentrating or solving problems
Factors that may trigger or worsen symptoms include:
Hot baths or showers
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.
Tests may include:
—a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of structures inside the brain and spinal chord
Evoked potentials—a test that records the electrical responses evoked after a sensory stimulus
(spinal tap)—removal of a small amount of fluid from around the spinal cord to check for white blood cells, antibodies, and proteins
The goals of MS treatment are to relieve symptoms, prevent relapses, delay disability, and slow disease progression.
Medications may include:
Corticosteroids—to reduce nerve tissue inflammation and shorten MS flare-ups
(a protein that naturally occurs in the body)—used to suppress the immune system
—to help prevent MS relapses by modifying the function of the immune system
Other immunosuppressive drugs, such as:
—for relapsing MS (This medication is under a mandatory registration program.)
Muscle relaxants—to treat muscle spasms or stiffness
Other drugs to treat:
Physical Therapies and Lifestyle Changes
Therapies and changes may include:
Regular moderate exercise with your doctor's permission (Swimming is especially beneficial.)
Physical therapy to help maintain muscle strength and tone, dexterity, and walking ability
High fiber diet to prevent
Individual or group
will help you learn coping strategies for physical symptoms and emotional stress.
If you are diagnosed with MS, follow your doctor's
There are no guidelines for preventing MS, because the cause is unknown.
To prevent flare-ups or worsening symptoms if you have MS:
Take medications as prescribed.
Avoid hot weather.
Stay in air-conditioned places during periods of hot weather.
Get adequate rest.
Get regular, moderate exercise with your doctor's permission.
Avoid hot showers or baths.
Make sure to get enough fiber in your diet.
To aid in stress reduction, consider getting regular massages.
Multiple Sclerosis Association of America
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Multiple Sclerosis Society
Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada
Bradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel G and Jankovic J.
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Mayo Clinic and Foundation for Medical Education and Research website. Available at:
The Merck Manual of Medical Information
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National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at:
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Rose JW, Carlson NG. Pathogenesis of multiple sclerosis.
Continuum Lifelong Learning Neurol.
Last reviewed February 2009 by
Jill D. Landis, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care
provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a
substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER
IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the
advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to
starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a
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