Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects the nerves in your brain and spinal cord (central nervous system), causing problems with muscle control, vision and balance.
Around 100,000 people in the UK have MS. It usually starts in early adulthood, and it affects about three times as many women as men.
MS is a condition that affects the nerves in your central nervous system. Nerves are made up of thousands of fibres that transmit tiny electrical impulses (messages) between your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body, for example to your muscles, skin or organs (such as your heart and lungs). Your nerves are protected by a sheath made of a substance called myelin. This makes sure the messages are transmitted correctly from your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body.
MS is thought to be an autoimmune disease. This means that your body's immune system, which usually just attacks harmful things like bacteria and viruses, attacks and damages your own healthy body tissue causing inflammation.
If you have MS, your immune system damages the myelin sheaths around the nerves in your brain and spinal cord. These become scarred and hardened. This scarring prevents the affected nerves from sending messages properly. The signals can slow down, become altered or not get through at all.
There are several different ways of describing patterns of MS and each progress differently.
The symptoms of MS can vary widely from person to person and will depend on the area of your central nervous system that is affected. You may have very few mild symptoms, especially in the early stages. However, you may have symptoms that get worse over time. Some of the most common symptoms include:
Most people won’t experience all of these symptoms, especially at the same time. These symptoms may be caused by problems other than MS. If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP for advice.
The exact reasons why you may develop MS aren't fully understood at present. However, several factors are thought to be involved.
MS can be very difficult to diagnose. There is no single test that can confirm MS and many of the symptoms are also found in other conditions, so these may need to be excluded first.
If your GP thinks you may have MS, he or she will refer you to see a neurologist (a doctor specialising in conditions that affect the nervous system). Your neurologist will ask detailed questions about your symptoms and your general health. He or she may recommend tests, including:
Unfortunately, these tests don't always give a definite result and if your initial symptoms get better, your neurologist may wait and see if you have another relapse. It can be difficult and take time (possibly several months) to get a firm diagnosis.
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for MS. If you're diagnosed with the condition, you will always have it. However, this doesn't mean that you will have symptoms all of the time. The treatment you receive will depend on the type of MS and your symptoms. The aim of treatment is to relieve the symptoms of your MS, manage its progression and improve your mobility.
Therapies and management techniques can be used to help you control your symptoms. Some examples include:
Talk to your GP for more information about different self-help treatments.
If you have symptoms, such as depression, incontinence and pain, there are medicines that may help to manage your symptoms. These medicines don't prevent relapses or slow the progression of your MS, but they may help you to deal with your symptoms and allow you to continue with your day-to-day life.
If you get new symptoms or your symptoms get worse, visit your GP or talk to your specialist MS nurse.
If you have a relapse, you may be given a course of steroids for a few days to improve your symptoms. Steroids reduce your inflammatory response and can speed up your recovery from a relapse.
Disease modifying drugs (DMDs) can reduce the frequency and severity of relapses in people with relapsing/remitting MS. However, they aren't a cure for MS and they don't seem to work for the progressive forms of MS.
Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your GP or pharmacist for advice.
Although there isn't enough scientific evidence to show that these are effective, many people with MS use complementary and alternative medicine, such as reflexology, massage and t'ai chi. Speak to your doctor before trying any complementary therapy.
Good practical and emotional support is important. Your neurologist will usually refer you to specialist services that aim to help you carry on living independently and continue your daily activities. As well as your GP and neurologist, other health professionals who can help include:
You may be entitled to support services at work. Under the Equality Act, your employer can make reasonable adjustments to help you continue with your job.
Infections can trigger a relapse, so you should consider having seasonal flu immunisations to reduce the risk.
Produced by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Information Team, June 2012.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
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This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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