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This page is intended to provide basic information about Multiple Sclerosis to the general public. It is not intended to, nor does it, constitute medical advice, and readers are warned against changing medical schedules and activities without first consulting a physician.

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis Fact Sheet

What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that interrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and the body and stops people from moving. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are moving us closer to a world free of MS.

Who gets MS?

Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, although people as young as two and as old as 75 have developed it. At least two to three times as many women as men are diagnosed with the disease, and there are an estimated 8-10,000 children under the age of 18 who live with MS. MS occurs in most ethnic groups but more commonly among Caucasians of northern European ancestry. In all parts of the world, MS is more frequently observed at northern latitudes farther from the equator and less frequently observed in areas closer to the equator.

How many people have MS?

More than 400,000 in the United States and 2.1 million worldwide have MS. Each week, approximately 200 people are diagnosed with the disease — one person every hour.

What are the symptoms of MS?

Symptoms of MS vary greatly from person to person and from time to time in the same person. For instance, one person with MS may experience abnormal fatigue and another person may have severe vision problems. While one person with MS may have loss of balance, muscle coordination or tremors — making walking and everyday tasks difficult to perform — another person may have slurred speech and memory issues. These problems may be permanent or may come and go.

What causes these symptoms?

In MS, symptoms result when inflammation and breakdown occur in myelin, the protective insulation surrounding the nerve fibers of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Myelin is destroyed and replaced by scars of hardened, "sclerotic" patches of tissue. Some underlying nerve fibers are permanently severed, and the damage appears in multiple places within the central nervous system. Myelin is often compared to insulating material around an electrical wire; loss of myelin interferes with the transmission of nerve signals.

Is MS fatal?

No. MS is not a fatal disease, except in rare cases. But people with MS may struggle to live as productively as they desire, often facing increasing limitations.

Does MS always cause paralysis?

No. The majority of people who live with MS do not become severely disabled. Two-thirds of people remain able to walk, though many will require an aid, such as a cane, and some will use a scooter or wheelchair because of fatigue, weakness or balance problems.

Is MS contagious or inherited?

No. MS is neither contagious nor directly inherited; although studies indicate genetic factors may make certain individuals more susceptible to the disease.

Can MS be cured?

Not yet. There are now FDA-approved medications that have been shown to "modify" or slow down the underlying course of MS. In addition, many therapeutic and technological advances are helping people manage symptoms. Advances in treating and understanding MS are made every year, and progress in research to find a cure is very encouraging.

What medications and treatments are available for MS?

The National MS Society recommends a person consider treatment with one of the FDA-approved "disease-modifying" drugs as soon as possible following a definite diagnosis of MS with active or relapsing disease. These drugs help to lessen the frequency and severity of MS attacks, reduce the accumulation of lesions (areas of damage) in the brain and may slow the progression of disability.

In addition to drugs that address the basic disease, there are many therapies for MS symptoms such as spasticity, pain, bladder problems, fatigue, sexual dysfunction, weakness and cognitive issues. People should consult a knowledgeable physician to develop a comprehensive approach to managing their MS.

Why is MS so difficult to diagnose?

In early MS, elusive symptoms that come and go might indicate any number of possible disorders. Some people have symptoms very difficult for physicians to interpret, and these people must "wait and see." While no single laboratory test is available to prove or rule out MS, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a great help in reaching a definitive diagnosis.

What are the different types of MS?

In an effort to develop a common language when discussing, evaluating and treating MS, the National MS Society conducted an international survey among scientists who specialize in MS research and patient care. Analysis of the responses has resulted in the following four definitions of disease categories:

  • Relapsing-remitting
    Characteristics: People with relapsing-remitting MS experience clearly defined flare-ups (relapses) or episodes of acute worsening of neurologic function. These are followed by partial or complete recovery periods (remissions) between attacks that are free of disease progression. Frequency: Most common form of MS at the time of initial diagnosis. Approximately 85 percent at onset.
  • Primary-progressive
    Characteristics: People with primary-progressive MS experience a nearly continuous worsening of their disease from the onset, with no distinct relapses or remissions. However, there are variations in rate of progression over time, occasional plateaus and temporary minor improvements. Frequency: Relatively rare. Approximately 10 percent at onset.
  • Secondary-progressive
    Characteristics: People with secondary-progressive MS experience an initial period of relapsing-remitting disease (see above) followed by a steady worsening disease course with or without occasional flare-ups, minor remissions (recoveries) or plateaus. Frequency: If left untreated, 50 percent of people with relapsing-remitting MS develop this form of the disease within 10 years of initial diagnosis and 90 percent transition within 25 years.It’s too soon to tell the extent to which the disease-modifying treatments alter or delay the transition to secondary-progressive MS.
  • Progressive-relapsing
    Characteristics: People with progressive-relapsing MS experience a steady worsening disease from the onset but also have clear acute flare-ups (relapses), with or without recovery. In contrast to relapsing-remitting MS, the periods between relapses are characterized by continuing disease progression. Frequency: Relatively rare. Approximately 5 percent at onset.

Patient, Family and Caregiver Resources:

NW MS Foundation guide:  nwmsguide-PDF

                              www.nmss.org  National Multiple Sclerosis Society

                      www.aan.com/patients American Academy of Neurology

                      www.neurologynow.com Free subscription to Neurology Now

                      www.msassociation.org Multiple Sclerosis Associaion of America

                      www.msfocus.org Multiple Sclerosis Foundation