Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from one person to another.
MS is caused by damage to the myelin sheath, which is the protective covering that surrounds nerve cells. The nerve damage is caused by inflammation when the body’s own immune cells attack the nervous system. The damaged myelin forms scar tissue (sclerosis), which gives the disease its name. When any part of the myelin sheath is damaged or destroyed, nerve impulses travelling to and from the brain and spinal cord are distorted or interrupted, producing the variety of symptoms that can occur.
Because nerves in any part of the brain or spinal cord may be damaged, people with MS can have symptoms in many parts of the body. They may include:
The following symptoms can also occur in MS, but much less frequently:
MS is generally diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40, but can occur at any age. It affects more women than men. The disease is usually mild, but some people lose the ability to write, speak or walk. There is no known cure for MS, but there are treatment strategies available to control symptoms and to slow the progression of MS. These strategies include:
Although the disorder is chronic and incurable, life expectancy can be almost normal. Most people with MS learn to cope with the disease and continue to lead satisfying, productive lives.