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Q&A: Multiple sclerosis

March 11, 2018—Multiple sclerosis (MS) is usually classified as an autoimmune disorder. Estimates as to how many people in the U.S. have MS range from 250,000 to 350,000. Many people don't know much about this disease. Here are five common questions and their answers.

1. What is MS?

MS is a disease that affects the central nervous system. In autoimmune diseases, the body attacks its own tissues, mistaking them for foreign invaders. In MS, the attacks focus on the myelin sheath that insulates nerves. MS damages and destroys myelin, leaving in its place lesions or plaques. These plaques become hardened scars over time, interrupting the transmission of nerve signals from the brain, through the spinal cord and to the rest of the body.

2. What are common symptoms of MS?

MS often shows up between the ages of 20 and 40, according to the American Academy of Neurology. Early symptoms often include impaired vision, red-green color distortion or blindness in one eye. Other symptoms can include:

  • Weak, stiff muscles, often with painful muscle spasms.
  • Tingling or numbness in the arms, legs, torso or face.
  • Clumsiness, especially being off-balance while walking.
  • Bladder control problems.
  • Persistent dizziness.
  • Cognitive changes, such as difficulty concentrating or making decisions.

3. Who gets MS?

Anybody can get MS. However, it is substantially more common in women than in men. It occurs more often in Caucasians than in Hispanics or African Americans. It's fairly rare in Asian Americans. People who have a sibling or a parent with MS are at a slightly higher risk for getting the disease. And people who live farther from the equator appear to be at higher risk for MS.

4. Does MS look the same for everyone?

No. There are several forms of MS. One is called relapsing-remitting. It starts with a first attack, typically followed by a near- or full recovery. Months or years can pass before another attack occurs, with the same pattern. Another is called primary-progressive MS, in which there's a gradual decline with no remission. A third variety is called secondary-progressive MS. It begins as relapsing-remitting, then later follows a primary-progressive course. There also are other, rarer forms of MS that your doctor can tell you about.

5. Can MS be cured?

Unfortunately no, MS can't yet be cured. At least for relapsing-remitting MS, however, there are treatments for initial attacks and to improve symptoms during relapses. Relatively recent drug therapies have even been shown to delay the long-term progression of relapsing-remitting MS, including the frequency and severity of relapses.

Do you have other questions about MS? Visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for the answers.

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