Nancy Davis Foundation: Multiple Sclerosis FAQ
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system (brain and
spinal cord) in which the insulating protective covering (myelin sheath)
surrounding the nerves is destroyed or damaged, resulting in interference with
the brain’s signals to various parts of the body. Hard or firm scar tissue
replaces areas where the myelin has been lost, hence the name multiple
sclerosis (multiple scars) in many patients. MS symptoms can be relatively
benign in some cases to completely debilitating in other patients, as
communication between the brain and other parts of the body is disrupted.
Who contracts MS?
Young adults between the ages of 20 and 40 are most likely to develop MS.
The disease is also at least twice as common in women as men, perhaps related
to hormonal factors. The incidence of MS is ten times higher for those living
in northern countries and the northern United States above the 40th parallel.
The rate of MS decreases significantly in populations further south. Most
scientists think the cause of MS is “multifactorial”. The person’s genetic
heritage, gender, birthplace, age and environment contribute to susceptibility,
resistance, and pattern of the course of MS. It is not an inherited disease, in
the strict sense, but certain susceptibility does run in families. One theory
suggests a common viral infection in your early teens results in the
development of an immune response (autoimmune reaction) when one becomes an
adult. In this autoimmune process, immune cells mistake myelin for a foreign
invader and attack it.
What are the symptoms of MS?
Multiple sclerosis causes a wide variety of symptoms. The most common
- Numbness or tingling
- Unusual fatigue, weakness and exhaustion
- Vision problems
- Poor coordination or difficulty walking
- Slurred speech
- Bladder problems
No two persons with MS will necessarily display the same symptoms, making it
difficult to predict the course of the disease for an individual patient.
Symptoms may occur suddenly and remain constant, or may continue in a
progressive or episodic pattern. The uncertainty and unpredictability of MS
makes living very difficult for the victims, their families and friends.
How is MS diagnosed?
To be accurately diagnosed with MS, your doctor will order a complete set of
MRI studies, nerve conduction studies and possibly a spinal tap. From those
results the doctor will determine if your symptoms are attributable to MS.
Currently there is a blood test being developed that will identify MS,
hopefully giving many people a chance at early detection and treatment.
What is the clinical course of MS?
There are several different clinical courses: relapsing-remitting,
secondary-progressive, primary-progressive and, rarely, progressive-relapsing.
Relapsing-remitting occurs in 85% of newly diagnosed MS patients. Patients will
have an attack or relapse, which lasts usually a few weeks, and will have
either new symptoms develop, or have symptoms recur or worsen. Patients may
return to normal or have permanent remaining symptoms. Secondary-progressive
usually develops in about half the patients initially diagnosed with
relapsing-remitting MS. In this type the patient slowly and steadily gets
worse. There may be an occasional relapse or attack, or perhaps no recurrence
of attacks with this type. Primary-progressive MS affects about 15% of all MS
patients and the patient worsens steadily without having a relapse or attack.
Progressive-relapsing MS is similar to primary-progressive MS in its steady
deterioration except that the patient experiences occasional attacks along with
the already worsening symptoms.