What is Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a chronic condition that affects the central nervous system (CNS): the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. The damage caused by multiple sclerosis creates scars, called lesions, that can be seen on the brain, spinal cord and optic nerve. Because the process of developing these lesions is called sclerosis, multiple sclerosis literally means "many scars."
What happens in MS?
The central nervous system (CNS) is made up of nerve cells that send signals to each other. Each nerve cell is covered with a protective coating called myelin. Myelin acts as a conductor in helping signals move at high speeds from one end of the nerve cell to the other. In multiple sclerosis, disease activity damages the myelin in a process called demyelination. Demyelination results in lesions (or scars) that lead to a breakdown in signal transmissions.
If researchers can someday learn how and why people get MS, it may lead to breakthroughs in treatment or perhaps even prevention.
What causes multiple sclerosis?
The cause of multiple sclerosis is currently unknown, although research is ongoing. It is generally believed that MS is an autoimmune disease. Normally, your immune system helps to fight foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria. In an autoimmune disease, something triggers the immune system to attack itself. In the case of MS, the immune system is thought to attack and damage nerve cells and the myelin that covers them.
Other scientists think that multiple sclerosis may be triggered by an infection—probably a virus. It is thought that this trigger may activate the production of T cells, which are a type of white blood cell. Once activated, the T cells start to multiply and cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB) to the brain and spinal cord. The T cells are thought to then begin a process that attacks and damages nerve cells in the CNS. If there is a viral connection to multiple sclerosis, it is believed that the virus triggers a genetic predisposition to the disease, which means that exposure to a virus is just one factor for why someone might develop multiple sclerosis. There is also no evidence to support that MS is contagious.
Many think it's important to start therapy as early as possible after diagnosis of relapsing MS.
If researchers can someday learn how and why people get MS, it may lead to breakthroughs in treatment or perhaps even prevention. Until then, there are disease-modifying drugs (DMDs), which are proven effective in treating relapsing MS. Many think it's important to start therapy as early as possible after diagnosis of relapsing MS.
The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) advise early treatment for active MS. Research shows that nerve damage starts early in MS. Once the nerve fiber is destroyed, it may be lost forever. Talk with your health care professional to find out which relapsing MS treatment is best for you. Start taking it as soon as you can.
Who gets Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
- More than 2.5 million people worldwide are thought to have some form of multiple sclerosis
- An estimated 400,000 people in the United States are thought to have MS
- More than twice as many women as men have MS
- Most people are between 15 and 60 years of age when diagnosed with MS, although it can also occur in young children and significantly older adults
- MS is more common in Caucasians and people of Northern European descent, but people from all backgrounds can be diagnosed with MS