Must-Know Facts About Multiple Sclerosis

Learn about the disease that affects one person in the US every hour.

Medically reviewed in December 2021

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disease that disrupts the flow of information between the brain and the body. First symptoms largely appear in young people between the ages of 20 and 40, but can sometimes appear in children and older adults. The disease is unpredictable and can affect people in different capacities; some may not have any symptoms, while others experience symptoms that last for only short periods of time, followed by stretches of relief. Others affected may steadily worsen, leading to increased disability over time.    

Diagnosing the disease
There is no single test to diagnose MS. Instead, physicians must look at medical histories, perform neurologic exams and assess symptoms. An MRI is typically administered to support the clinical diagnosis. A large part of diagnosing MS is ruling out other possible ailments, based on tests and symptoms.

In order for an individual to be diagnosed with MS, he or she must show signs of damage in at least two areas of the central nervous system, like the brain, optic nerve or spinal cord, which occurred at least one month apart. No possibilities of other ailments can be present. 

A possible prognosis
Because the disease is so unpredictable, it is difficult to determine its course. For some, MS is diagnosed shortly after onset. For others, it may be years before a doctor is able to provide an answer. For most, the symptoms come and go, and are typically mild. In more severe cases, individuals might experience the inability to write, walk and talk.  

Don't miss signs and symptoms
Early symptoms of MS include dizziness, clumsiness, tingling extremities, bladder control problems and vision issues, like loss of vision, blurred or double vision and pain in the eye area.  As MS progresses, individuals may experience mental and physical fatigue, changes in mood and loss of ability to concentrate and make decisions.

Less common symptoms may include seizures, breathing problems and hearing loss. It’s important to remember that signs and symptoms an individual may exhibit vary greatly, and they may also change or fluctuate over time.

Causes are complicated
Ultimately, the cause of MS is damage to neurons, nerve fibers and myelin—the protective covering of nerve cells—in the brain and spinal cord. The reason for this damage is unknown, but researchers believe MS is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the nerves. The reason for the attack, however, isn’t fully understood.

There's no cure, but treatment is available
There is no cure for multiple sclerosis, but treatments have been developed to help reduce the number of attacks, alleviate symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. Some drugs have been approved to help individuals manage the disease and enhance their quality of life. Rehabilitation is one therapy available to individuals with MS, which can improve and maintain function and mobility. Managing symptoms of MS is an ongoing process that begins at diagnosis and evolves throughout the course of the individual’s life.

Ways to live well with MS
In addition to managing symptoms with treatment, individuals with MS may consider making some lifestyle changes. Physical activity, like walking or jogging, helps keep muscles loose, promotes heart health and can improve balance. Heat or warm weather can often make symptoms of MS worse, so keep your house cool, avoid taking hot showers and baths and be mindful about exercising at a cooler time of day, such as in the morning or evening. There's s no specific diet for MS, but maintaining a healthy and balanced diet can be beneficial to persons with any chronic disorder. 

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