What is MS?
MS stands for multiple sclerosis, a neurological condition that affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system).
'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. MS is not a terminal condition but it is one that you will live with for the rest of your life. It isn't infectious or contagious so you can't pass it on to other people.
Is it common?
MS is the most common condition of the central nervous system affecting young adults. Over 100,000 people in the UK have MS which is about one in every 600. It is nearly three times more common in women than in men. Most people are diagnosed in their 20s and 30s but it can be diagnosed in younger and older people. Although the effects of MS can vary greatly from person to person, the condition is often categorised into one of three broad types.
What are the symptoms?
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.
If you experience new symptoms, it's important to get them checked out by your MS nurse or GP. They may be part of your MS but they could have some other cause. Like everyone else, it's good to go for routine health tests such as for blood pressure and diabetes, and for cancer screening.
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.
What causes symptoms?
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 is thought to be, at least in part, an autoimmune condition which means that the immune system is mistakenly attacking parts of your body instead of just attacking invaders like viruses and bacteria. In MS, the attack is on a protein called myelin which forms the insulating covering around nerves. The resulting patches of damage to the nerves (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.
Last updated: September 2017
Last reviewed: September 2017
This page will be reviewed within three years