Every hour, someone in the United States receives a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS). Although it usually strikes adults aged between 20 and 40, MS can affect people at any time in their lives. There is no cure for MS; however, there are many treatments that can control symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease. You may think of MS as a rapidly progressing disease that paralyzes people, but in fact, two-thirds of people with MS remain able to walk with a cane or other aid.

What Is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. Healthy nerve cells have a protective covering of myelin. MS damages this myelin, which means that signals can’t easily travel between the brain and the body.

Most cases of multiple sclerosis cause relatively mild symptoms, including muscle weakness and problems with balance and coordination. Some people have a rapidly progressing form of the disease that leaves them unable to walk or speak. It's hard to predict what the symptoms someone diagnosed with MS will have.

Useful Terms

  • MS: Abbreviation of multiple sclerosis
  • Spinal cord: Nerves in the spine that carry signals between the brain and the body.
  • Myelin: The protective coating surrounding nerve cells.
  • Remission: A time when you no longer have symptoms of MS.

Stages and Types of Multiple Sclerosis

There are four types of MS:

  • Relapsing-Remitting MS (RRMS): Affecting about 85% of newly diagnosed MS sufferers, RRMS causes temporary symptoms that may disappear and reappear throughout your life.
  • Secondary-Progressive MS (SPMS): RRMS can progress into SPMS, where symptoms gradually get worse. However, some people still have periods of remission.
  • Primary-Progressive MS (PPMS): About 10% of people with MS have symptoms that gradually get worse, without any remissions.
  • Progressive-Relapsing MS (PRMS): PRMS is a rare form of MS that quickly gets worse.

Symptoms and Causes

Symptoms of MS vary widely among different people with the disease. You may only have one or two of these common symptoms or many of them.

  • Tiredness
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms and legs
  • Muscle weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Pain
  • Blurry vision
  • Bladder and bowel problems
  • Trouble walking
  • Memory problems

Scientists don’t know for sure what causes MS, but they think it might be due to the immune system, which usually fights infections, mistakenly attacking healthy cells in the body.

Prevention and Risks

The average person in the United States has a risk of about 1 in 750 of developing MS. Your risk is higher if you have a close relative with the disease.

These people are more likely than others to develop MS:

  • Women
  • White people
  • Young adults
  • Smokers

Some research suggests that vitamin D could help to protect people against MS. Skin naturally produces vitamin D when sunlight shines on it. Those who live close to the equator develop MS much less often than people who live in places with less sunlight. However, spending too much time in the sun without protection can cause skin cancer, so don’t skip the sunscreen.

Diagnosis and Tests

Your doctor may do some or all of these tests to see whether you have MS:

  • MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging creates a picture of the brain and spinal cord, allowing doctors to see damage to the myelin.
  • CSF: Doctors can use a needle to draw cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from your spine and then test the fluid for signs of myelin breaking down and other indicators of MS.
  • EP: In an evoked potential test, a doctor attaches wires to your scalp to record your responses to sound, light, and touch. This test is painless and can help doctors detect damaged areas of the brain.

Treatment, Procedures, and Medication

Many medicines can help slow down MS and reduce symptoms. You can take some medications in pill form, but others are injections.

In addition to medicines that slow the disease progression, there are also dozens of others that can help with the symptoms of MS:

  • Painkillers
  • Antidepressants
  • Medicines to help you feel less tired
  • Medicines to help your bladder and bowel work properly
  • Anti-tremor medicines

As well as medication, you may also benefit from physical therapy. Physical therapists help people perform exercises to strengthen parts of their body, which can help with walking and balance.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

Living a healthy lifestyle can help you cope with MS. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society gives these lifestyle tips:

  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Exercise regularly. Yoga, tai chi, and exercising in water are particularly effective.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Avoid alcohol. It interferes with many MS medicines and can worsen symptoms.
  • Use relaxation techniques or counseling to help you manage stress.

Conclusion

Receiving a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis can be daunting, but many people with MS can control their symptoms through medications and physical therapy. If you think you have MS, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible so you can determine the right treatment for you. Learn more about living with multiple sclerosis to find out how regular exercise and other healthy lifestyle changes can help you manage your condition.