Multiple Sclerosis Fact Sheet

You’ve heard of celebrities who have a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS): Jack Osbourne, Montel Williams, David and Alan Osmond, Ann Romney and Donna Fargo. It's a debilitating neurological disease that currently has no cure. Learn more about MS.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disorder that affects the nervous system. When someone has MS, that person’s own immune system attacks its own nervous system, which causes periods of vision loss, numbness, pain and an array of other symptoms.

Your nervous system consists of specialized cells called neurons, which transmit signals to and from your brain. You use neurons every time you move, walk, read, think, see, feel objects, etc. If something happens to any one of those groups of neurons, it will prevent you from doing everyday tasks you take for granted. During an MS flare up, the immune system attacks a component of the nervous system called myelin, which is a special cover on the neurons that help them work properly. It works like insulating material on electric wire; without it, the neurons become unable to function.

According to the National MS Society, more than 2.1 million people have MS around the world. The average person (someone who does not have a family history of MS or other risk factors) has about a 1 in 750 chance of developing MS; however, it affects around twice as many women as men. There is currently no cure.

What Do People With MS Experience?

Because we depend on our nervous system for many things, having our nervous system malfunction because of MS can lead to a wide array of symptoms, which include:

  • Numbness or weakness in one or more of your limbs

  • Loss of vision

  • Having double vision or blurry vision

  • Feeling tingling or pain in one or more parts of your body

  • Feeling electric-shock sensations when you move your head in certain ways

  • Feeling unsteady or losing coordination while walking or standing

  • Having stiff muscles or muscle spasms

  • Extreme fatigue or dizziness

Everyone who has MS experiences it differently. For example, Jack Osbourne first experienced vision problems before he discovered he had MS, “All of a sudden a black dot appeared in my vision. ... The next day I woke up and the dot had turned into a cigar shape," he told People magazine. Montel Williams, on the other hand, felt tingling sensations in his feet and lost his balance several times before he was diagnosed. Country western star Donna Fargo started feeling numb in her left side and had severe back pain.

These symptoms come and go and tend to be triggered by stress or an increase in body temperature. Because people with MS experience so many different types of symptoms, it makes it very hard to diagnose. Doctors may mistake the symptoms of MS for other diseases, and because there is no definitive test for MS, it very hard to confirm that someone who may present with MS symptoms actually has MS.

Sometimes, the symptoms become very serious. Some may experience paralysis in the legs. Some may become incontinent, while others experience depression or difficulty concentrating. Some are also at higher risk of epilepsy.

Where Does MS Come From?

No one knows exactly why people get MS. It is not contagious, and while it isn’t directly inherited, those who have family members with MS are more likely to get MS themselves. However, research has assessed certain factors that may influence one’s risk of developing MS:

  • Virus Infections: Various studies have connected many viruses with an increased risk of developing MS. One virus in particular is the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which causes mononucleosis.

  • Genetics: While the average person has about a 1 in 750 chance of developing MS, someone who has a parent or sibling with MS has a 1 in 40 chance of developing MS. However, the connection isn’t clear, and doctors do know that one doesn’t develop MS because of genetics alone.

  • Birth Month: One study found that those born in May were more likely to develop MS, and those who were born in November were less likely to develop MS.

  • Smoking: Those who smoke have a higher risk of developing MS.

  • Sunlight and Vitamin D: Multiple studies have suggested that those who get less sunlight are at higher risk of developing MS. For example, those who live in northern areas that get less sunlight are more likely to develop MS. This may be connected to levels of vitamin D. Another study found that women who took at least 400 IUs of vitamin D a day had a significantly lower risk for MS.  

If There's No Cure, How Is MS Treated?

There is no cure for MS; however, there are medications that are available that can slow down the course of the disease. There are also therapies available that can treat specific symptoms of MS, like the pain, bladder problems, fatigue, or weakness. Everyone with MS should see a physician who is knowledgeable about MS and who can recommend a comprehensive approach to managing MS, which includes medications, mental health support, and lifestyle modifications.

For more information about MS, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s website.

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