Introduction 

Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide range of symptoms including problems with movement, balance and vision.

It's a lifelong condition that can cause serious disability, but it's often possible to keep the symptoms under control for many years and life expectancy isn't significantly affected for most people.

It's estimated there are more than 100,000 people with MS in the UK.

It's most commonly diagnosed in people in their 20s and 30s, although it can develop at any age. It's about two to three times more common in women than men.

Symptoms of MS

The symptoms of MS vary from person to person and can affect any part of the body.

The main symptoms include:

  • extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • vision problems, such as double vision in one eye
  • numbness or tingling in different parts of your body
  • muscle spasms, stiffness and weakness
  • problems with balance and co-ordination
  • problems with thinking, learning and planning

Depending on the type of MS you have (see below), your symptoms may come and go in phases, or get steadily worse over time.

Read more about the symptoms of MS.

Getting medical advice

See your GP if you're worried you might have early signs of MS.

The symptoms can be similar to several other conditions, so they're not necessarily caused by MS. Let your GP know about the specific pattern of symptoms you're experiencing.

If you GP thinks you could have MS, you'll be referred to a neurologist (a specialist in conditions of the nervous system), who may suggest tests such as a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to check for signs of MS.

Read more about diagnosing MS.

Types of MS

There are three main types of MS, which have a different pattern of symptoms.

Relapsing remitting MS

More than eight out of every 10 people with MS are diagnosed with the relapsing remitting type of MS.

Someone with relapsing remitting MS will have flare-ups of symptoms, known as relapses, that last from a few days to a few months. These often occur without warning, but are sometimes triggered by illness or stress.

Relapses are followed by periods where symptoms are mild or disappear altogether, known as remission. Periods of remission typically last several months.

Secondary progressive MS

After many years or decades, most people with relapsing remitting MS will eventually develop secondary progressive MS.

In this type of MS, symptoms gradually worsen over time. Some people may still have relapses, but without full recovery in between.

Around half of people with relapsing remitting MS will develop secondary progressive MS within 15 years, and the risk of this happening increases the longer you have the condition.

Primary progressive MS

The least common form of MS is primary progressive MS, affecting just over one in 10 people with the condition.

In this type, symptoms gradually get worse over time and there are no periods of remission.

This type doesn't affect people with relapsing remitting MS.

What causes MS?

MS is an autoimmune condition. This is where something goes wrong with the immune system and it mistakenly attacks a healthy part of the body.

In MS, the immune system attacks the layer that surrounds and protects the nerves called the myelin sheath. This damages and scars the sheath, meaning that messages travelling along the nerves become disrupted.

Exactly what causes the immune system to act in this way is unclear, but most experts think a combination of genetic and environmental factors are involved.

Read more about the causes of MS.

Treatments for MS

There's currently no cure for MS, but a number of treatments can help control the condition.

The treatment you need will depend on the specific symptoms and difficulties you have. It may include:

  • treating relapses with short courses of steroid medication
  • specific treatments for individual MS symptoms
  • treatment to reduce the number of relapses with medicines called disease-modifying therapies

Disease-modifying therapies may also help slow the progression of MS in people with relapsing remitting MS, and can help control symptoms in people with secondary progressive MS who are still experiencing relapses.

Unfortunately, there's currently no treatment that can slow the progress of primary progressive MS.

Read more about how MS is treated and living with MS.

Outlook

MS can be a challenging condition to live with, but new treatments over the past 20 years have considerably improved the quality of life of people with the condition.

MS itself is rarely fatal, but complications that may arise from severe MS, such as chest infections or breathing difficulties caused by muscle weakness, can be.

The average life expectancy for people with MS is around five to 10 years lower than average, and this gap appears to be getting smaller all the time.

MS charities and support groups

There are three main MS charities in the UK:

These organisations offer useful advice, publications, news items about ongoing research, blogs and chatrooms. They can be very useful if you, or someone you know, has just been diagnosed with MS.

There is also the shift.ms website which is an online community for younger people affected by MS.

Page last reviewed: 15/01/2016

Next review due: 15/01/2018