Relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis (MS)
Your symptoms will come and go. This is the most common form of MS, affecting about eight in 10 people who have the condition. This means you have relapses (flare ups of symptoms), followed by remission (periods of good health). Remission can last for any length of time, while relapses can last for anything between a few days and a few weeks.
- Secondary progressive MS – this starts after a period of flare ups and remission. You’ll gradually have more or worse symptoms that don’t improve, and fewer periods of good health. About half of all people who have relapsing/remitting MS go on to develop secondary progressive MS within 10 years.
- Primary progressive MS – from the beginning, your symptoms will gradually develop and get worse over time. About one in 10 people with MS have primary progressive MS.
The symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) can vary widely from person to person. They can also depend on the area of your central nervous system that is affected. You may have only a few mild symptoms, especially in the early stages. You may have symptoms that get worse over time. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- tiredness (fatigue)
- muscle weakness, stiffness and spasms leading to difficulty walking
- eye problems, blurred or double vision and temporary loss of vision
- bladder problems, particularly emptying your bladder completely or needing to urinate frequently and urgently, in some cases leading to incontinence
- bowel problems
- loss of balance, coordination and dizziness
- pain from nerve damage, for example you may have facial pain (trigeminal neuralgia) or pain related to loss of mobility
- numbness or tingling on your skin
- burning or twisting sensation
- heat sensitivity, feeling too hot or too cold
- slurred speech and difficulty swallowing
- feeling emotional, anxious or depressed
- sexual difficulties, such as problems with erections or vaginal dryness – see our frequently asked questions for more information
You won’t get all of these symptoms, and especially not at the same time. And having them doesn't necessarily mean you have MS – they may be caused by something else.
It’s a good idea to contact your GP for advice if you have any of the symptoms listed here.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) can be difficult to diagnose. There’s no single test that can confirm MS and many of the symptoms are also found in other conditions. These may need to be ruled out first.
If your GP thinks you may have MS, you’ll be referred to see a neurologist. This is a doctor who specialises in conditions that affect the nervous system. Your neurologist will ask detailed questions about your symptoms and your general health. You may be advised to have one or more tests, listed below.
- A neurological examination to test your nerve reflexes and your ability to move different parts of your body.
- An examination to look for problems with your eyes, such as changes to your sight.
- An MRI scan – this uses magnets and radio waves to produce images of the inside of your body. The scan may show up areas of scarring or inflammation (swelling) in the myelin. This is a common test used to diagnose MS.
- Evoked potential testing to measure the time it takes for messages to travel to your brain, usually from your eyes.
- A lumbar puncture (also known as a spinal tap). This involves taking a sample of the fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid). Lumbar punctures are only usually carried out if your MRI scan doesn't show for certain whether you have MS or not.
These tests will help your neurologist to confirm whether or not you have MS. A first episode is called a Clinically Isolated Syndrome. The neurologist will usually only make a definite diagnosis of MS after a second episode. Thus if your initial symptoms get better, your neurologist may wait to see if you have another relapse. It can be difficult and may take time to get a firm diagnosis.
Although there isn't a cure for multiple sclerosis (MS) and you will always have it, you won’t necessarily have symptoms all of the time. Your treatment will depend on the type of MS you have and your symptoms. The aim of treatment is to relieve these symptoms, manage the progression of MS and improve your mobility.
There are things you can do for yourself to help improve the symptoms of MS. Some examples include:
- exercise to help with fatigue and muscle weakness
- pelvic floor exercises to reduce urinary incontinence
Talk to your GP or specialist nurse for information about what will be helpful for you.
Certain symptoms, such as depression, incontinence and pain, can be relieved with medicines. These medicines don’t prevent relapses or slow the progression of your MS. But they may help you to manage your symptoms and make it easier to get on with day-to-day life.
If you get new symptoms or your symptoms get worse, tell your GP or 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 inflammation (swelling) and can speed up your recovery from a relapse.
You may be prescribed disease modifying drugs if you have relapsing-remitting MS and you've had two or more serious relapses within the past two years. They can reduce the frequency and severity of relapses in people with relapsing/remitting MS and may slow down its progression. For example, you may be advised to take a medicine called interferon beta or glatiramer (copaxone). However, they aren't a cure for MS and they don’t seem to work for the primary progressive form 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.
Depending on what symptoms you have, you may be referred for different types of treatment. For example, you may be offered:
- cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) if your mood is affected and you’re feeling anxious or depressed
- speech therapy if you’re having trouble communicating
- physiotherapy to help with weakness, stiffness or pain in your muscles and joints
Although there isn't much proof to show that complementary therapies work well, some people with MS do find they work for them. They include complementary mind-body therapies, such as progressive resistance training (PRT), yoga, reflexology, massage and tai chi. Have a chat with your MS nurse before trying anything new.
The exact reasons why you may develop multiple sclerosis (MS) aren't well understood at the moment. Several factors are thought to be involved, including the following.
- Having a certain combination of genes may make some people more susceptible to MS. These genes are also found in the general population so having them doesn't definitely mean you will develop MS. MS isn’t inherited and most people who develop the condition don’t have anyone else in their family with it. However, you do have a slightly higher risk of developing MS if you have a relative with the condition.
- A lack of vitamin D could play a part in the development of MS in some people. Your body produces vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight. More scientific research needs to be done to say for certain, but where you live in the world may affect your risk. MS is more common in countries further from the equator (such as the UK, USA and Canada), where sun exposure is less.
- Environmental factors, such as a virus or bacteria, may also trigger MS. But so far no single virus has been identified that causes MS.
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:
- specialist nurses
- occupational therapists
- speech and language therapists
- clinical psychologists
- social workers
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 will probably be advised to have a flu jab to reduce this risk.
Will multiple sclerosis (MS) shorten my life?
MS may affect how long you live.
If you have MS, your overall life expectancy may be slightly lower than that of the general population if you have severe symptoms. However, usually MS doesn't directly cause death – it’s generally related to a complication of MS, such as an infection.
Your specialist nurse or doctor can help to answer any questions you may have.
Can I still have children if I have multiple sclerosis?
Yes. MS doesn’t directly affect your fertility and there is no reason why you can’t still have children.
MS doesn't directly affect your fertility so your chances of conceiving are as good as somebody who doesn't have MS.
If you have MS and you’re planning to get pregnant, talk to your specialist nurse. Some medications aren't recommended in early pregnancy and may need to be stopped or gradually reduced before you start trying for a baby. You should only do this under your specialist nurse or doctor’s supervision, as stopping your medicine suddenly may be harmful. If you find out that you’re pregnant unexpectedly and you’re taking disease modifying drugs (DMDs), talk to your specialist nurse as soon as possible.
During pregnancy, most women feel well and have no new MS symptoms. Some symptoms of pregnancy and MS are similar, such as fatigue, so it may appear that some of your symptoms become worse. All women’s pregnancies are different, so discuss any concerns or symptoms you have with your midwife or GP.
Overall, the number of relapses women have during pregnancy and the year that follows remains constant. Pregnancy doesn't seem to have a long-term effect on disease progression. If you do have a relapse, research shows that it’s more likely to happen during the three months after you have given birth.
Will multiple sclerosis affect my sex life?
MS can affect the practical and emotional aspects of sex, for both men and women.
Not everybody that has MS will be affected by issues with their sex life.
If you have MS, symptoms such as fatigue, bladder and bowel problems, mobility issues and pain may reduce your desire for sex.
If you’re a woman, you may also find the sensation and regularity of orgasm is different and penetration may be uncomfortable. Your vagina may become drier and vaginal muscle tone can decrease. If you’re a man with MS, you may have less sensation in your penis, fewer and less intense orgasms. You may also have ejaculation or erectile problems.
If you need any advice, talk to your GP. You may find counselling helps as it gives you a chance to talk through any worries that you have. If the sensations you experience have changed, getting used to your body and what feels good may help. Water-soluble lubricants can help reduce dryness. Men can try medicines such as sildenafil or prostaglandins for erectile difficulties.
Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, speak to your pharmacist or GP.
Establishing and maintaining your relationship is important. If you’re concerned that MS is affecting your sex life, talk to your MS nurse or GP.
My lumbar puncture showed oligoclonal bands – what does this mean?
If your lumbar puncture shows you have oligoclonal bands, it’s likely that you have MS.
You may be offered a lumbar puncture to help diagnose MS. This involves taking a sample of the fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid). The fluid is then checked for certain types of antibodies. Usually these are produced by your immune system to help your body fight infection but in MS they attack your nerves. Your neurologist will use a process known as electrophoresis to test this. This makes antibodies that are the same size group together to form bands. If there is more than one band showing up, these are called oligoclonal bands.
Oligoclonal bands are found in more than nine out of 10 people who have MS. But you can still get a firm MS diagnosis without this kind of testing.
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