Multiple sclerosis 

Introduction 

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

Multiple sclerosis is one of the most common neurological conditions among young adults. An MS specialist nurse explains how to recognise early symptoms and where to get help.

Media last reviewed: 18/03/2013

Next review due: 18/03/2015

MS charities

There are two main MS charities in the UK:

Both organisations offer useful advice, publications, news items about ongoing research, blogs and chatrooms.

It is highly recommended that you visit both these websites 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.

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

Each nerve fibre in the brain and spinal cord is surrounded by a layer of protein called myelin, which protects the nerve and helps electrical signals from the brain travel to the rest of the body. In MS, the myelin becomes damaged.

This disrupts the transfer of these nerve signals, causing a wide range of potential symptoms, such as:

  • loss of vision – usually only in one eye
  • spasticity – muscle stiffness that can lead to uncontrolled muscle movements
  • ataxia – difficulties with balance and co-ordination
  • fatigue – feeling very tired during the day

Read more about the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Types of multiple sclerosis

Around eight out of 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. These can last from a few days to a few months.

These will be followed by periods where symptoms are mild or disappear altogether. This is known as remission and can last for days, weeks or sometimes months.

Usually after around 15 years, around half of people with relapsing remitting MS will go on to develop secondary progressive MS.

In secondary progressive MS, symptoms gradually worsen over time. Some people may still have relapses, but without full recovery from symptoms.

The least common form of MS is primary progressive MS. In this type, symptoms gradually get worse over time and there are no periods of remission.

Treatment

There is currently no cure for MS but there are a number of treatments that can help.

Relapsing remitting MS can be treated with disease-modifying drugs. These are designed to reduce the number of relapses someone has. They may also be able to slow the progression of MS. But they are not suitable for all people with MS.

Some of these drugs can also be used for treating secondary progressive MS, if someone is still experiencing relapses.

At the moment, there is no treatment that can slow the progress of primary progressive MS.

There are also a wide range of treatments, including physiotherapy, that can help relieve symptoms and make day-to-day living easier. Steroids can also be used to speed up recovery from relapses.

Read more about the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Causes

MS is known as an autoimmune condition. This is where something goes wrong with the immune system (the body’s defence against infection) and it mistakenly attacks healthy body tissue – in this case, the myelin covering of nerves.

This can cause multiple sections of the brain and spinal column to become damaged and hardened (sclerosis), which can disrupt the nerve signals passing through these areas.

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 possible risk factors and causes of multiple sclerosis.

Who is affected

It is estimated that there are currently around 100,000 people with MS in the UK.

MS is most commonly diagnosed in people aged 20-40, although it can happen at any age. Children can also get MS, although this is rare.

For reasons that are unclear, MS is three times as common in women than men, and more common in white people than black and Asian people.

Outlook

MS can be a challenging and frustrating 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 is not fatal, but some complications that can arise from severe MS, such as pneumonia, can be.

As a result, the average life expectancy for people with MS is around five to 10 years lower than the population at large. This gap appears to be getting smaller, perhaps because of improved medical care.




Page last reviewed: 03/04/2014

Next review due: 03/04/2016

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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

PaineFury said on 29 November 2013

MS post:

Please accept my sincerest apologies for posting this here. I'm urging everyone to read this, and share it with whoever you know that may be affected by it (or, even if they're not, these words need to be heard and understood). So please, read on:

I won't go into much detail about my own past, as this affects everybody. However, to cut a long story short my diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis might actually be Lyme Disease. I've made a lot of friends in MS groups and have spoken to a lot of people. The idea of having Multiple Sclerosis is a scary concept, but there are people all over the world who offer support.

Lyme Disease, as you may or may not know, is a tick-bourne infection that is present in a lot of countries including the UK, USA and others. Awareness of it is still quite limited but it's affecting a lot of people everywhere. I guess the biggest point I'm trying to make here is just exactly what Lyme disease can mimic. The problem that is going on a lot right now is properly diagnosing Lyme Disease (also known as the Great Imitator) is difficult as the tests in place are not 100% successful and can result in false positives and negatives. This can, in turn, result in a diagnosis of a mimic such as Lupus, MS, ALS, RA, and others and possibly incorrect treatment. I've seen a lot of stories where the original diagnosis of Lupus, after further testing, was actually Lyme which is a perfectly curable disease if caught early. I know the US has a higher success rate of diagnosing Lyme, but there is still a lot of improvement to be made, and governments are still in a lot of disagreement about the right course of treatment for this.

To those who are affected by Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Alzheimers, Parkinsons, Guillian-Barré syndrome, Ménière’s syndrome, , Arthritis (rheumatoid, reactive, infectious, juvenile, or osteoarthritis), Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis please, investigate this!

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inyanga said on 23 March 2013

There is a problem with the rating system. I was about to award five stars and started to click on the first star. The computer immediately registered "unhelpful" and would not allow me to input any more stars or retrace my steps to correct this.I then had to register in order to record my rating.Obviously , if registering is a prerequisite of voting then I would understand but I wonder if you get a true reflection of opinions that way? Perhaps an explanation of how to enter the rating would be helpful.

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Templeknight7 said on 22 May 2011

I would disagree with your statement that MS is not a terminal disease as would the 20% of people with MS who " have a considerably shortened life"
The reason for the general misconception about the teminal nature of MS is found in the fact that :-"Routine mortality statistics are usually based on identifying a single cause for each death. This is the 'underlying cause of death', defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as:

a) the disease or injury which initiated the train of events directly leading to death or
b) the circumstances of the accident or violence which produced the fatal injury

So the disease which initiated the train which directly leads to death is recorded as a respiratory problem (usually aspiration pneumonia ) or a urinary tract infection. As both of these are actuallt secondary to MS it makes more sense for cause of death to be recorded was an event secondary to multiple sclerosis which should be recorded as the primary cause. This would make life a lot easier for MS patients trying desperately to meet continuing healthcare criteria for the purpose of ecieving funded care.

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