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Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a long-lasting (chronic) disease of the central nervous system. It is thought to be an autoimmune disorder, a condition in which the body attacks itself by mistake. MS is an unpredictable disease that affects people differently. Some people with MS may have only mild symptoms. Others may lose their ability to see clearly, write, speak, or walk when communication between the brain and other parts of the body becomes disrupted.
Myelin is the fatty tissue that surrounds and protects nerve fibers. In MS, the myelin is destroyed in many areas. This loss of myelin forms scar tissue called sclerosis. These areas are also called plaques or lesions. When the nerves are damaged in this way, they can’t conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain.
There are many possible causes of MS, including:
The symptoms of MS are often unpredictable. They may be mild or severe, short-term or long-lasting. They may appear in different combinations, depending on the area of the nervous system affected. The following are the most common symptoms of MS. But each person may have different symptoms.
About 50% of all people with MS have thinking (cognitive) problems linked to the disease. The effects of these problems may be mild. Your healthcare provider may only find them after much testing. The problems may be with:
Symptoms of MS are grouped as primary, secondary, or tertiary as described below:
Primary symptoms. These symptoms are a direct result of the destruction of myelin:
Secondary symptoms. These are complications that may occur as a result of the primary symptoms, for example:
Tertiary symptoms. These are social, job-related, and psychological problems:
The symptoms of MS may look like other health conditions or problems. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
No specific test is available to diagnose multiple sclerosis. But a healthcare provider can make a diagnosis by following a careful process to rule out other causes and diseases. Two things must be true to make a diagnosis of MS:
Generally a single attack along with certain patterns of changes in brain tissue seen on an MRI scan of the brain performed with contrast can mean that you have MS.
An MS evaluation involves a complete health history and neurological exam. This includes:
The following may be used when evaluating a person for multiple sclerosis:
Evaluation and diagnosis of MS requires a variety of tools to rule out other possible disorders. It also requires a series of lab tests that, if positive, confirms the diagnosis.
Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment plan for you based on:
There is no cure yet for MS. But you can do things to help change the course of the disease, treat flare-ups, manage symptoms, and improve your function and mobility.
Treatments for the conditions seen with MS may include:
Rehabilitation varies depending on your symptoms and how severe they are. MS rehabilitation may help you to:
The complications of MS range from mild to severe. They can range from fatigue to the inability to walk. Other problems include loss of vision, balance, and bowel or bladder control. Depression can result from the difficulty of living with a chronic condition.
It's important to take your medicines as directed. You may get help by taking part in a clinical trial. Using equipment like canes or walkers can help you get around as walking becomes more difficult. Rehabilitation activities can also help you keep or get back functioning. Changing the way your home is set up can help you stay independent. Talk with your family and healthcare providers about what you need.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
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