Definition

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system. It is a chronic condition that can be disabling.

There are several types of MS:

  • Relapsing-remitting MS —Symptoms suddenly reappear periodically. They last for a few weeks or months, then go back into remission (a period with no symptoms). Symptoms may get worse 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.
Nerve Fiber (Neuron)
Myelin Sheath Damage
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Causes

The immune system normally attacks viruses or bacteria that should not be in the body. With MS, a problem with the immune system causes it to attack healthy nerves. In particular, MS attacks the nerve fibers in the brain, spinal cord, and the nerves of the eye. The exact cause of these immune problems is unknown.

The following may contribute to the development of MS:

  • Viral or other infection
  • Genetic factors (heredity)
  • Environmental factors
  • Breaking down of parts of the nervous system

Risk Factors

MS is more common in women and in people aged 15-50 years old. Other factors may increase your chance of MS include:

  • Exposure to certain viruses
  • Family members who have MS or other autoimmune disorders
  • Being of Northern European descent
  • Growing up in a colder climate, as opposed to a tropical climate
  • Having certain immune system genes
  • Having inflammation of the optic nerve
  • Having low vitamin D levels
  • Smoking

Symptoms

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:
    • Blurred vision
    • Double vision
    • Loss of vision
  • Eye pain
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Muscle weakness
  • Incoordination or falling
  • Trouble walking or maintaining balance
  • Weakness in one or more limbs
  • Bladder problems including:
  • Bowel problems, including constipation
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Forgetfulness, memory loss, and confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating or solving problems
  • Depression

Symptoms may worsen with:

  • Heat, including:
    • Hot weather
    • Hot baths or showers
    • Fever
  • Overexertion—intense physical activity
  • Infection

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Tests may include:

  • MRI to take pictures of internal structures around the brain and spinal cord
  • Sensory evoked potentials to record the electrical responses evoked after a sensory stimulus
  • Visual evoked potential test to look for problems in the brain that affect vision
  • Lumbar puncture to check the fluid around the brain and spinal cord, which may rule out other diseases
  • Blood tests to rule out other diseases that may mimic MS

Treatment

There is no cure for MS, you can manage the disease with medication, lifestyle changes, and counseling. Treatment will help relieve symptoms, prevent relapses, delay disability, and slow disease progression. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include:

Medications

Medications include:

  • Interferon betas
  • Immunomodulators
  • Immunosuppressives
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Corticosteroids
  • Potassium channel blockers
  • Botox injections

Other medications may also be given to treat symptoms, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Pain
  • Bladder or bowel problems

Physical Therapies and Lifestyle Changes

Therapies and changes may include:

  • Regular moderate exercise with your doctor's permission—swimming may be especially beneficial
  • Physical therapy to help maintain muscle strength and tone, dexterity, and walking ability
  • Massage
  • High-fiber diet to prevent constipation
  • Stress reduction techniques
  • Quitting smoking —smoking may worsen MS, causing the condition to progress to a more severe form

Psychological Therapies

Individual or group therapy will help you learn coping strategies for physical symptoms and emotional stress.

If you are diagnosed with MS, follow your doctor's instructions .

Avoiding Periods of Relapse

Some forms of MS have periods remissions that alternate with relapses. Take these steps to help you avoid relapses and worsening of symptoms:

  • Adhere to the treatment plan you worked out with your doctor
  • Get adequate rest
  • Avoid hot weather
  • Stay in air-conditioned places during periods of hot weather
  • Avoid hot showers or baths
  • Avoid overexertion and stress
  • Avoid infection by:
    • Using proper hygiene
    • Staying away from people who are sick
    • Thoroughly cooking food
    • Practicing safe sex

Prevention

There are no current guidelines to prevent MS.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: Rimas Lukas, MD
  • Review Date: 09/2013 -
  • Update Date: 09/30/2013 -
  • Multiple Sclerosis Association of America

    http://www.mymsaa.org

  • National Multiple Sclerosis Society

    http://www.nationalmssociety.org

  • Health Canada

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

  • Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada

    http://mssociety.ca

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