Multiple sclerosis (MS)

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition which can affect the brain and/or spinal cord. It can cause a range of symptoms, including problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation or balance, see below. See your GP if you're worried you might have early signs of MS.

About multiple sclerosis 

MS is a lifelong condition. It can sometimes cause serious disability, although it can occasionally be mild.

In many cases, it’s possible to treat symptoms. Average life expectancy is slightly reduced for people with MS.

The average age which at which people develop MS is 30 years old. About 70% of people with MS develop the disease between the ages of 20 and 40 years. It's about two to three times more common in women than men.

In Northern Ireland, about 170 people in every 100,000 have MS.

Symptoms of MS 

The symptoms of MS vary widely from person to person and can affect any part of the body.

The main symptoms include:

  • fatigue
  • difficulty walking
  • vision problems, such as blurred vision
  • problems controlling the bladder
  • numbness or tingling in different parts of the body
  • muscle stiffness and spasms
  • problems with balance and co-ordination
  • problems with thinking, learning and planning

Depending on the type of MS you have, your symptoms may come and go in phases, or get steadily worse over time (progress).

When to get medical advice 

See your GP if you're worried you might have early signs of MS.

The early symptoms often have many other causes, so they're not necessarily a sign of MS. Let your GP know about the type and pattern of symptoms you’re experiencing.

If you GP thinks you could have MS, you'll be referred to a neurologist (a specialist in conditions of the nervous system) for tests.

Types of MS 

MS starts in one of two general ways: with individual relapses (attacks or exacerbations) or with gradual progression.

Relapsing-remitting MS 

More than 8 out of every 10 people with MS are diagnosed with the "relapsing remitting" type.

Someone with relapsing remitting MS will have episodes of new or worsening symptoms. These are known as "relapses".

These typically worsen over a few days, last for days to weeks to months, then slowly improve over a similar time period.

Relapses often occur without warning.

Periods between attacks are known as periods of "remission". These can last for years at a time.

After many years (usually decades), many, but not all people, with relapsing remitting MS go on to develop ‘secondary progressive MS’.

In this type of MS, symptoms gradually worsen over time without obvious attacks. Some people continue to have infrequent relapses during this stage.

Primary progressive MS 

Just over 1 in 10 people with the condition start their MS with a gradual worsening of symptoms.

In primary progressive MS, symptoms gradually worsen and accumulate over several years, and there are no periods of remission.  People can often have periods where their condition appears to stabilise.

Causes of MS 

MS is an autoimmune condition. This is when something goes wrong with the immune system. The immune symptom mistakenly attacks a healthy part of the body – in this case, the brain or spinal cord of the nervous system.

Exactly what causes the immune system to act in this way is unclear. But most experts think a combination of genetic and environmental factors is involved.

Treatments for MS 

There's currently no cure for MS, but a number of treatments can help control the condition.

The treatment you need will depend on the specific symptoms and difficulties you have. It may include:

  • treating relapses with short courses of steroid medication to speed up recovery
  • specific treatments for individual MS symptoms
  • treatment to reduce the number of relapses with medicines called disease-modifying therapies

There's currently no treatment that can slow the progress of primary progressive MS or secondary progressive MS in the absence of relapses. Many therapies aiming to treat progressive MS are currently being researched.

Outlook 

MS can be a challenging condition to live with but help and support is available, see useful links below.  New treatments over the past 20 years have considerably improved the quality of life of people with the condition.

MS itself is rarely fatal, but complications may arise from severe MS, such as chest or bladder infections, or swallowing difficulties.

The average life expectancy for people with MS is around 5 to 10 years lower than average, and this gap appears to be getting smaller all the time.

 

 

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information, read terms and conditions.

This page was published February 2018

This page is due for review June 2019

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