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Multiple Sclerosis (MS) - Topic Overview

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Multiple sclerosis, often called MS, is a disease that affects the central nervous system camera.gif—the brain and spinal cord. It can cause problems with muscle control and strength, vision, balance, feeling, and thinking.

Your nerve cells have a protective covering called myelin. Without myelin, the brain and spinal cord can't communicate with the nerves in the rest of the body. MS gradually destroys myelin in patches throughout the brain and spinal cord, causing muscle weakness and other symptoms. These patches of damage are called lesions.

MS is different for each person. You may go through life with only minor problems. Or you may become seriously disabled. Most people are somewhere in between. Generally, MS follows one of four courses:

The exact cause is unknown, but most experts believe that MS is an autoimmune disease. In this kind of disease, the body's defenses, called the immune system, mistakenly attack normal tissues. In MS, the immune system attacks the central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord camera.gif.

Experts don't know why MS happens to some people but not others. There may be a genetic link, because the disease seems to run in families. Where you grew up may also play a role. MS is more common in those who grew up in colder regions that are farther away from the equator.

Symptoms depend on which parts of the brain and spinal cord are damaged and how bad the damage is. Early symptoms may include:

  • Muscle problems. You may feel weak and stiff, and your limbs may feel heavy. You may drag your leg when you walk.
  • Vision problems. Your vision may be blurred or hazy. You may have eyeball pain (especially when you move your eyes), blindness, or double vision.
  • Sensory problems. You may feel tingling, a pins-and-needles sensation, or numbness. You may feel a band of tightness around your trunk or limbs.
  • Balance problems. You may feel lightheaded or dizzy or feel like you're spinning.

Diagnosing MS isn't always easy. The first symptoms may be vague. And many of the symptoms can be caused by problems other than MS.

MS is not diagnosed unless a doctor can be sure that you have had at least two attacks affecting at least two different areas of your central nervous system. The doctor will examine you, ask you questions about your symptoms, and do some tests. An MRI is often used to confirm the diagnosis, because the patches of damage (lesions) caused by MS attacks can be seen with this test.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: February 15, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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