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MS: the facts

Image of brain in head

MS stands for multiple sclerosis. It is a neurological condition that affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, also known as the central nervous system or CNS.

'Sclerosis' means scarring or hardening of tiny patches of tissue. 'Multiple' is added because this happens at more than one place in the brain and/or spinal cord. 

Fast facts about MS

  • MS is a disease affecting the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord)
  • More than 100,000 people in the UK have MS
  • MS is the most common condition of the central nervous system affecting young adults 
  • MS is a life long condition but it is not a terminal illness
  • It is not infectious or contagious so it can’t be passed on through meeting someone with MS
  • Everyone's MS is different so no two people will have the same range and severity of symptoms, even if they are closely related

Who gets it

  • MS is more common in countries further north or south from the equator
  • MS is nearly three times more common in women than men
  • It is usually diagnosed when people are in their 20s and 30s but can be diagnosed in younger and older people.
  • MS is not inherited, but family members do have a slightly higher risk of developing MS

10 facts about Multiple Sclerosis

It's good to know the facts. Did you know more than 100,000 people in the UK have MS? Watch our video to find out more.

Living day to day

  • Symptoms can come and go and vary greatly in their impact on someone from day to day, or even from hour to hour
  • There may be periods of relapse of varying length and severity
  • There are treatments for the symptoms of MS although the condition can’t currently be cured
  • Most people diagnosed with MS will never need to use a wheelchair on a regular basis

Although the effects of MS can vary greatly from person to person, the condition is often categorised into one of three broad types. MS is, at least in part, an autoimmune disease which damages the protein coating of your nerves. The resulting patches of nerve damage (sclerosis) mean that messages don't get passed along the nerve very efficiently or, sometimes, may not get through at all. Your symptoms will correspond to the areas of your brain and spinal cord that have been damaged.

There is a wide range of possible symptoms but you usually experience only a small number around the time of diagnosis and you may never experience them all. Symptoms vary from person to person and from day to day. This can make your MS rather unpredictable and can take some getting used to.

Some of the most common symptoms around the time of diagnosis are fatigue (a kind of exhaustion which is out of all proportion to the task undertaken), stumbling more than before, unusual feelings in the skin (such as pins and needles or numbness), slowed thinking or problems with eyesight

Many of these symptoms may be invisible to other people. This may upset you if you're feeling very unwell but others think you look OK. You may need to explain that your MS is causing difficulties, rather than assuming that others can detect this. 

At the moment there is no cure for MS but there are disease modifying drugs to reduce relapse rates and there is a wide range of possible treatments for symptoms which you can discuss with your health professionals. 

Although MS is a neurological condition, some of the symptoms may seem like nothing to do with your nerves. For example, you might think that difficulties with eyesight would be due to a problem in the eye itself. However, sight problems in MS occur because the condition has affected either the nerves from your eye to your brain (the optic nerves) or a part of your brain which controls or interprets vision.

MS myths and misunderstandings

MS is a terminal illness

A medical definition of a terminal illness would be “an illness that results in death within a fairly short time. There is no possibility of recovery”. For someone with a terminal illness, death is expected within weeks or months, though sometimes longer.

MS is not a terminal illness but it is a life-long condition. Most people are diagnosed in their 20’s or 30’s and will, on average, live with the condition for 40 to 50 years. Typically, people with MS live until their mid-70’s, a reduction in life expectancy of six to seven years compared with the general population. In recent years, disease modifying drugs have been introduced for people with relapsing MS and they may improve life expectancy in the future as they reduce the number of relapses along with the associated increase in disability.

People who are very severely affected by MS may get more infections, or develop additional health conditions, more easily than other people and they may die from these. This means it’s important for this group to have good care and stay infection-free.

Read more on life expectancy in the A to Z of MS

Once diagnosed you have to give up work

MS is different for everyone. Each person will experience different symptoms at different times and the impact of these symptoms on working life will very much depend on their type of work and their personal experience of MS. On receiving an MS diagnosis, family, friends and even health care professionals might advise someone to stop working. This could be because they don't understand the nature of MS or because they want to protect them from stress. However many people with MS never experience symptoms severe enough to stop them working. People who make big changes or leave the workforce soon after diagnosis or their first major relapse may regret doing so.

Read more on working with MS

You will end up in a wheelchair

For the vast majority of people with MS, this will not be the case. Getting rapidly worse is rare and most people with MS will never need to use a wheelchair on a regular basis.

Read more on equipment that can be helpful when living with MS 

You will have to reduce your physical activity

Moderate exercise is recognised as an important element in maintaining general health and wellbeing for everyone, including people with MS. However, many people do not exercise on a regular basis and some people with MS face additional barriers. For example, the symptoms of MS may make some activities more difficult or require a different approach, but there are organisations which offer information and ideas on a range of activities from competitive sports to more leisurely pursuits. Also, we have developed a set of exercises which can be done sitting or lying down.

You shouldn't have children

A woman with MS is less likely to have a relapse during pregnancy, although the risk of relapse increases during the six months after the birth. However, pregnancy has no long-term effect on the course of MS and a woman with MS is no more likely to experience miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects or infant death than a woman who does not have MS. MS is not genetically inherited in the way that eye colour is passed down, although family members do have a slightly increased risk of developing MS. However, that risk is still small.

Read more about pregnancy and MS

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