With multiple sclerosis (MS), the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, becomes damaged. Experts have learned that as part of the disease, the immune system attacks myelin, the substance that acts like a layer of insulation around nerves. The nerves themselves can also be attacked. When myelin or the nerves become damaged, nerves cannot properly pass along their signals. The damaging process forms scar tissue called sclerosis, which gives the disease its name of multiple sclerosis.
Different types of MS affect people in different ways. One type is called relapsing-remitting MS. With this type, people have flare-ups of the disease, or relapses. Between these flare-ups, people have periods of recovery, or remissions.
About 85 percent of people diagnosed with MS start off with the relapsing-remitting type. In most cases, the course of the disease changes after a few decades and is then likely to become steadily worse.
MS most often develops in people in their 20s and 30s. Women are twice as likely to have MS as men.
These are often the earliest symptoms of MS:
Sensitivity to heat
Numbness, especially in the feet
Difficulty thinking clearly
Needing to urinate urgently
Trouble with balance
Lack of coordination
Relapsing-remitting MS is marked by relapses that last at least 24 hours. During a relapse, symptoms get worse. A relapse will be followed by a remission. During a remission, symptoms partly or completely go away.
Doctors use many tests to help diagnose MS. Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. Part of your doctor's job will be to rule out other diseases that can cause similar symptoms.
Your doctor will also check to see how well your vision, your sense of balance, and other functions are working. You may need an MRI scan that makes images of your brain. This may find areas of damage in your brain that suggest you may have MS.
Another possible test measures what’s called visual evoked potentials. Painless electrodes placed on your scalp measure how your brain responds to things you see.
Your doctor may want to check your blood for other signs of disease. He or she may also order a test called a spinal tap to look at a sample of your spinal fluid.
MS is not considered curable, but different types of medicine can treat your symptoms and protect you from the disease. Certain drugs may be prescribed to:
Treat muscle spasms
Treat urges to urinate
Treat erectile dysfunction
Your doctor may also suggest steroids to reduce symptoms during flare-ups. In addition, doctors can treat relapsing-remitting MS with several drugs that affect the immune system. These may reduce relapses and help prevent new areas of damage.
Experts don't know how to prevent MS.
If you have relapsing-remitting MS, you can take other steps to manage your condition. Physical therapy may help relieve muscle spasms. A diet low in saturated fat and trans fat may help. Eating more foods with healthy omega-3 fatty acids may be especially good because these nutrients are believed to fight inflammation. You may find that talking with a counselor can help with depression. You may also want to avoid situations that cause you to become overheated.
Getting a moderate amount of exercise and enough sleep may help reduce relapses.