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What is MS?

What is MS?

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A Brief Description

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


Is There a Cure?

Today, the answer is no.

However, rapid progress is being made in a number of areas that give us hope that the answer will change in the not-too-distant future.

Today, drug therapies are helping doctors and patients manage the disease far better than they could ten years ago.

Moreover, research is being conducted on three key areas that, if successful, will bring us much closer to a cure. These are:

Halting demyelination

Research is focused on stopping whatever it is that now destroys this protective layer around our nerve fibers.

Promoting remyelination

Research has shown it is possible to re-grow myelin in laboratory animals that have an MS-like illness.

Repairing damaged axons

Recent research showed that MS attacks not only the myelin, but also the nerve cells (axons) themselves. Now new research is investigating whether these cells can be repaired.

Thanks to research sponsored by the National Institute for Neurological Disease and Stroke (NINDS), the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and others, people with MS today have genuine expectations that they can live productive lives.

And in the future, we hope that MS will have a new name: Mission Successful.


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