Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disease which affects nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Nerves are wrapped in a protective substance called myelin, but MS breaks down the myelin, leaving the nerves unprotected. The unprotected nerves can’t function as they would with normal, healthy myelin.
As the damage progresses, scar tissue develops, and this is the source of the term “sclerosis,” which means “harden” in Greek. A variety of symptoms may be experienced, but no two sufferers are just alike in their experience of multiple sclerosis. The disease is unpredictable, and 45% of patients with multiple sclerosis never have debilitating symptoms.
MS is the most widespread disabling neurological condition found among young people, being diagnosed typically between the ages of 20 and 40. It is more common among women than among men.
The symptoms of multiple sclerosis vary, but there are some things people with multiple sclerosis are likely to encounter.
The most common early symptoms of MS include things that might be overlooked or attributed to stress or other conditions:
- vision problems
- tingling and numbness
- muscle weakness, muscle spasms
- problems with balance and coordination
Other, less common symptoms include more serious symptoms which might still be misidentified:
- speech and swallowing problems
- cognitive dysfunction
- bladder and bowel dysfunction
- sexual dysfunction
- mood swings, depression
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor about seeing a neurologist.
There is no one test that can diagnose multiple sclerosis with 100 percent accuracy, but your neurologist may recommend imaging and laboratory testing.
MRI – Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the major diagnostic laboratory tool that can support the diagnosis. Changes in the brain which might be found in imaging:
- multiplicity of lesions
- large diameter
- oval shape in particular locations in the brain and spinal cord
An MRI scanner exerts powerful magnetic fields and radio waves around a patient who lies in a tube. It produces very accurate images of the patient’s internal organs—in this case, the brain and the spinal cord in particular. An MRI cross section of the brain and spinal cord can reveal MS lesions that couldn’t have been found in other ways.
Spinal Tap – If the MRI findings are inconclusive, another option is a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to examine the cerebrospinal fluid. Examination of the spinal fluid can rule out other conditions, including infections, and can support a diagnosis of MS.
There is no cure for MS. It’s a chronic condition, and medications and rehabilitation can slow it or lessen symptoms. Multiple sclerosis may include remissions and relapses, but it is not fatal for most people.
A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis is followed by a discussion of treatment options. Your neurologist will work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan.
- HealthLine – Learn about the disease, how it works, how to manage, and more. Diagnosed with MS? View videos from others living with MS and learn that you’re not alone in your fight.
- National MS Society – Explore the disease and treatment options and connect with support networks.