Multiple sclerosis can be a particularly debilitating disorder because your body essentially attacks itself. But you can learn to cope during attacks.
So, what causes multiple sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a disease in which your body's immune system eats away at the protective sheath that covers your nerves. The disorder disrupts communication between your brain and the rest of your body, meaning your nerve signals slow down or stop.
We don't know exactly why this happens. The most common thought is that a virus or gene defect, or both, are to blame. Environmental factors may even play a role. We do know that the disorder affects more women than men, that you may get the disorder if you have a family history of MS, and that you are at higher risk if you live in a part of the world where MS is more common. It's typically diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40, but we see the disorder at any age.
Now you may ask, how do you know you have multiple sclerosis?
Symptoms of MS can vary widely from person to person because the location and severity of each attack can be different. Episodes may last for days, weeks, or months. You may even have long periods where you have no symptoms. We call this remission.
Because MS may damage nerves in any part of the brain or spinal cord, you may have symptoms in many parts of the body. You may have muscle problems, including loss of balance, muscle spasms, numbness, trouble moving your arms or legs, even trouble walking. You may have bowel and bladder problems, such as constipation, trouble urinating, or a frequent urge to urinate. You may have double vision, eye pain, or uncontrolled eye movements. You will probably be tired a lot, and it's often worse in the late afternoon. And those are just a few of the many possible symptoms of MS.
Since symptoms of MS may mimic those of other nervous system disorders, your doctor will want to rule those out. Your doctor may suspect MS if you have trouble with two different parts of your central nervous system (such as abnormal reflexes) at two different times.
A neurological exam may show you have reduced function in one area of your body, or it may be spread over many parts of your body. You may have abnormal reflexes, decreased ability to move a part of your body, a loss of sensation. An eye exam might show abnormal pupil responses, changes in your visual field, or trouble seeing.
There is no known cure for MS, so your doctor will focus on therapies to slow down the disorder, to control your symptoms and help you maintain a normal quality of life. Your doctor can prescribe different medicines to help with this. You may have to take several medications.
Life expectancy with MS can be normal, or almost normal. Most people with MS continue to walk and function at work with minimal disability for 20 or more years. The amount of disability and discomfort can depend on how often you have attacks, on how bad they are, and what part of the central nervous system is affected by each attack. Most people return to normal or near-normal function between attacks. But, over time, many people with MS will need a wheelchair.
To help you maintain a normal quality of life, your doctor may suggest physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and support groups, depending on your needs. Starting an exercising program early in the course of your disorder, eating right, and getting enough rest can also help.
Review Date: 2/19/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.