Brief Description of the Disease:
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling, disease of the central nervous system. It is typically diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, although children and teenagers have been also diagnosed with increasing frequency.
For reasons not clearly understood, women are diagnosed at a rate of 2 1/2 to 3 times that of men. Initial symptoms range from relatively mild, such as numbness in the limbs, to severe, including paralysis or loss of vision.
These symptoms result when the insulating sheathing surrounding nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord (called "myelin") is attacked and the nerve cells become exposed. The result is a "short-circuiting" of messages from the brain to other parts of the body.
The myelin repairs itself, but leaves a scarring of the tissue ("sclerosis"). That is why people will often experience an initial symptom that then goes away. Later, the initial symptom, or other symptoms, may occur. These attacks are called "exacerbations." Often this next attack results in additional disability.
The unpredictable physical and emotional effects of managing multiple sclerosis can be lifelong. Until very recently medical science knew little about the disease, and even less about how to treat it. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are giving hope to those affected by the disease.
Physicians have identified four courses that the disease may take, each of which can range in impact on the patient from mild to severe:
Relapsing/Remitting. The initial stage of multiple sclerosis is called relapsing/remitting because of the intermittent nature of the disease's impact on the patient. This is the most common form of MS, affecting seventy to seventy-five percent of those initially diagnosed.
Exacerbations are unpredictable. The patient might not experience another attack for many years. However, over the course of time both the frequency and severity of the exacerbations tend to increase in most people.
Today, it is believed that whatever triggers MS happens much earlier in a person's life than the time immediately preceding initial symptoms of the disease. But because of the body's ability to heal itself, the initial attacks are often not seen or diagnosed.
Over time, however, many patients will move into the second stage of the disease where disability becomes more pronounced and often permanent. This is known as the Secondary/Progressive stage of multiple sclerosis.
Secondary/Progressive. This course of the disease is described by the increasing number of exacerbations and increasing disability. Approximately fifty percent of those with relapsing/remitting MS will be diagnosed with secondary/progressive MS within ten years of the initial diagnosis. After twenty-five years, ninety percent of relapsing/remitting patients will have moved into this phase of the disease.
Primary/Progressive. A minority of initial diagnoses (fifteen percent) will ultimately show a progressive increase in disability as a result of this more aggressive disease course. This diagnosis is usually made after the patient has shown a steady loss of function without any remittance time, nor any acute exacerbations.
Progressive-Relapsing. A small minority of patients (six to ten percent) experience this highly aggressive form of MS. This form is marked by constant exacerbations after the initial symptom without any remitting period.
For More Information:
There are many good sources where you can learn more about MS. Here are two.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is a comprehensive source of information about the disease, latest advances in research and programs that help people with MS and their families.
The National Institute for Neurological Disease and Stroke also provides up-to-date information about research.