Multiple sclerosis (abbreviated MS, also known as disseminated sclerosis or encephalomyelitis disseminata) is an inflammatory disease in which the fatty myelin sheaths around the axons of the brain and spinal cord are damaged, leading to demyelination and scarring as well as a broad spectrum of signs and symptoms. Disease onset usually occurs in young adults, and it is more common in women. It has a prevalence that ranges between 2 and 150 per 100,000. MS was first described in 1868 by Jean-Martin Charcot.
MS affects the ability of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord to communicate with each other effectively. Nerve cells communicate by sending electrical signals called action potentials down long fibers called axons, which are contained within an insulating substance called myelin. In MS, the body’s own immune system attacks and damages the myelin. When myelin is lost, the axons can no longer effectively conduct signals. The name multiple sclerosis refers to scars (scleroses—better known as plaques or lesions) particularly in the white matter of the brain and spinal cord, which is mainly composed of myelin. Although much is known about the mechanisms involved in the disease process, the cause remains unknown. Theories include genetics or infections. Different environmental risk factors have also been found.
Almost any neurological symptom can appear with the disease, and often progresses to physical and cognitive disability. MS takes several forms, with new symptoms occurring either in discrete attacks (relapsing forms) or slowly accumulating over time (progressive forms). Between attacks, symptoms may go away completely, but permanent neurological problems often occur, especially as the disease advances.
There is no known cure for multiple sclerosis. Treatments attempt to return function after an attack, prevent new attacks, and prevent disability. MS medications can have adverse effects or be poorly tolerated, and many patients pursue alternative treatments, despite the lack of supporting scientific study. The prognosis is difficult to predict; it depends on the subtype of the disease, the individual patient’s disease characteristics, the initial symptoms and the degree of disability the person experiences as time advances. Life expectancy of people with MS is 5 to 10 years lower than that of the unaffected population.
Symptoms vary, because the location and severity of each attack can be different. Episodes can last for days, weeks, or months. These episodes alternate with periods of reduced or no symptoms (remissions).
Fever, hot baths, sun exposure, and stress can trigger or worsen attacks.
It is common for the disease to return (relapse). However, the disease may continue to get worse without periods of remission.
Because nerves in any part of the brain or spinal cord may be damaged, patients with multiple sclerosis can have symptoms in many parts of the body.
- Loss of balance
- Muscle spasms
- Numbness or abnormal sensation in any area
- Problems moving arms or legs
- Problems walking
- Problems with coordination and making small movements
- Tremor in one or more arms or legs
- Weakness in one or more arms or legs
Bowel and bladder symptoms:
- Constipation and stool leakage
- Difficulty beginning to urinate
- Frequent need to urinate
- Strong urge to urinate
- Urine leakage (incontinence)
- Double vision
- Eye discomfort
- Uncontrollable rapid eye movements
- Vision loss (usually affects one eye at a time)
Numbness, tingling, or pain
- Facial pain
- Painful muscle spasms
- Tingling, crawling, or burning feeling in the arms and legs
Other brain and nerve symptoms:
- Decreased attention span, poor judgment, and memory loss
- Difficulty reasoning and solving problems
- Depression or feelings of sadness
- Dizziness and balance problems
- Hearing loss
- Problems with erections
- Problems with vaginal lubrication
Speech and swallowing symptoms:
- Slurred or difficult-to-understand speech
- Trouble chewing and swallowing
Fatigue is a common and bothersome symptoms as MS progresses. It is often worse in the late afternoon.
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