Multiple Sclerosis Facts

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a life-long chronic disease diagnosed primarily in young adults. During an MS attack, inflammation occurs in areas of the white matter of the central nervous system (nerve fibers that are the site of MS lesions) in random patches called plaques. This process is followed by destruction of myelin, which insulates nerve cell fibers in the brain and spinal cord. Myelin facilitates the smooth, high-speed transmission of electrochemical messages between the brain, the spinal cord, and the rest of the body. Symptoms of MS may be mild or severe and of long duration or short and appear in various combinations. The initial symptom of MS is often blurred or double vision, red-green color distortion, or even blindness in one eye. Most MS patients experience muscle weakness in their extremities and difficulty with coordination and balance. Most people with MS also exhibit paresthesias, transitory abnormal sensory feeling such as numbness or "pins and needles." Some may experience pain or loss of feeling. About half of people with MS experience cognitive impairments such as difficulties with concentration, attention, memory, and judgment. Such impairments are usually mild, rarely disabling, and intellectual and language abilities are generally spared. Heat may cause temporary worsening of many MS symptoms. Physicians use a neurological examination and take a medical history when they suspect MS. Imaging technologies such as MRI, which provides an anatomical picture of lesions, and MRS (magnetic resonance spectroscopy), which yields information about the biochemistry of the brain. Physicians also may study patients' cerebrospinal fluid and an antibody called immunoglobulin G. No single test unequivocally detects MS. A number of other diseases produce symptoms similar to those seen in MS.

Is there any treatment?

There is as yet no cure for MS. Until recently, steroids were the principal medications for MS. While steroids cannot affect the course of MS over time, they can reduce the duration and severity of attacks in some patients. The FDA has recently approved new drugs to treat MS. The goals of therapy are threefold: to improve recovery from attacks, to prevent or lessen the number of relapses, and to halt disease progression.

What is the prognosis?

The cause of MS remains elusive, but most people with MS have a normal life expectancy. The vast majority of MS patients are mildly affected, but in the worst cases, MS can render a person unable to write, speak, or walk.

What research is being done?

Scientists are looking into the body's autoimmune system, infectious agents, and genetics as culprits in MS. Studies into these areas strengthen the theory that MS is the result of a number of factors rather than a single gene or other agent. Studies use a technique called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to visualize the evolution of MS lesions in the white matter of the brain. Studies have shown that MS has no adverse effects on the course of pregnancy, labor, or delivery; in fact, the stabilization or remission of symptoms during pregnancy may be attributable to changes in a woman's immune system that allows her to carry a baby.

Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health