Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a chronic and degenerative condition that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the protective myelin sheath that covers nerves. As the myelin is damaged, signaling between nerves and along the nerve pathways gradually becomes more and more disrupted, resulting in problems with movement and motion and interfering with other functions. The progression of multiple sclerosis can vary from one person to another, and often, symptoms can “flare up” or become worse for a period of time, then lessen in severity during a period of remission. In others, the disease steadily and progressively becomes worse over time.
It’s unclear what triggers multiple sclerosis, but researchers believe it’s caused by a genetic mutation or possibly stems from childhood infections that cause an abnormal development in the body’s immune system. Women are two times as likely to develop multiple sclerosis as men, and it also occurs more commonly among people with a family history of the disease as well as those of Northern European descent.
To date, there is no specific test that can definitively diagnose multiple sclerosis. Instead, the disease is diagnosed based on a careful review of symptoms, an in-depth personal and family medical history, a physical examination and medical testing to rule out other possible diseases or conditions that cause similar symptoms. Blood tests, diagnostic imaging studies, nerve conduction tests and other evaluations may be ordered to aid in diagnosis. In a few cases, a small sample of cerebrospinal fluid (the protective fluid that surrounds the central nervous system) may be extracted for evaluation in a lab.
Although there is no cure for multiple sclerosis, there are many treatments that can be used to lessen the severity of symptoms and even help slow the progression of the disease. Corticosteroid injections can be very helpful in managing some symptoms, and immune-suppressant drugs can help slow the progression of the disease by preventing the immune system from attacking the protective myelin sheath. Other medications can help prevent or reduce the frequency of relapsing symptoms following periods of remission. Patients with MS will need ongoing care customized for their evolving needs to help manage symptoms over time.