What is multiple sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. The central nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. A fatty tissue called myelin surrounds and protects the nerve fibers of the central nervous system which helps nerve fibers conduct electrical impulses throughout the body. In MS, the myelin is damaged in many areas, causing plaques or lesions and ultimately scar tissue to develop. As a result sclerosis occurs, and the ability of the nerves to conduct electrical impulses and the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body is disrupted.
MS affects approximately 250,000 to 350,000 people in the United States. Most people experience their first symptoms between the ages of 20 and 40 years old. Women are two times more likely to develop MS than men. Whites are the most likely to develop MS, with the disease being five times more prevalent in regions with mild temperatures over tropical regions.
There are four different disease courses in MS. They are referred to as Relapsing Remitting (Relapsing Remitting MS), Primary Progressive (Primary Progressive MS), Secondary Progressive (Secondary Progressive MS) and Progressive-Relapsing (Progressive-Relapsing MS). The most common disease course is relapsing-remitting MS. Approximately 85% of people with MS are initially diagnosed with this course of MS. About 20 percent of the MS population has a benign form of the disease where there is little to no progression of symptoms after the initial attack and patients remain functional.
What causes multiple sclerosis?
Although scientists have learned a great deal about MS in recent years, the exact cause of MS is still unknown. Many investigators believe that the damage to the myelin occurs as a result of an abnormal response by the body’s immune system. This abnormal response launches the body into a defensive attack against its own tissues. Most agree that this autoimmune attack is a result of different factors, including unidentified environmental factors in a person who is genetically predisposed to respond.
Treatment of multiple sclerosis
There is no cure for MS; however, there are many medications available to help manage the disease on an ongoing basis. The goals of therapy are to improve recovery from attacks, to prevent or lessen the number of relapses and to stop the disease from progressing.
There are many resources and organizations available to provide assistance, support, advocacy and information: