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Multiple sclerosis - What is multiple sclerosis?

BMJ Group Medical Reference


It can be frightening to find out you have multiple sclerosis (MS). MS can be a serious disease, but treatments can improve your symptoms, slow down the disease, and help you keep getting the most out of life.

We've brought together the best research about MS and weighed up the evidence about how to treat it. You can use our information to talk to your doctor and decide which treatments are best for you.

If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), the nerves in your brain and spinal cord slowly lose their coating. Over time, these nerves get damaged and may stop working properly. This can affect you in all sorts of ways.

For example, MS can affect the way you move your body. You may at times find it hard to reach out for something or to walk properly.

Key points for people with MS

  • Some people with MS are hardly affected at all. But the disease is more serious for other people.

  • The most common symptoms are feeling very tired and weak and having numb or 'tingling' areas.

  • You may have flare-ups (called relapses) when your symptoms get worse and other periods when you feel fine.

  • MS affects everyone differently. Just because you have this disease, it doesn't mean you'll be very disabled or need a wheelchair.

  • There's no cure for MS, but drugs like interferon beta can reduce relapses, slow down the disease, and help you stay active.

Your central nervous system

To understand what happens when you get MS and how it's treated, it helps to know a bit about your central nervous system (or CNS for short).

903-1f_default.gifYour CNS has two main parts:[1]

  • Your brain controls everything your body does. For example, your brain lets you move your arm to pick up your coffee, speak, recognise your family, think, and remember things.

  • Your spinal cord is the main highway of your CNS. It's the big bundle of nerves that runs down your back from your brain. It sits inside the bones of your spine.

Your brain and spinal cord are made up of billions of nerve cells that share information. The information moves from one nerve cell to another as chemical signals.

Groups of nerve cells have specific jobs. For example, some let you think, learn, remember, and plan. Others let you see and hear. And others manage the millions of actions that keep your body working.

Many of the nerves in your brain and spinal cord have a coating called myelin. Myelin is made mainly of fat. It's important because it helps signals travel quickly and smoothly along your nerves.

What happens in MS?

Here's what happens if you have MS.[2][3]

  • Your immune system normally helps protect you by fighting off infections. But if you have MS, your immune system makes a mistake. It attacks the myelin coating around the nerves in your brain and spinal cord.

  • This causes inflammation, and the myelin coating may be damaged or even destroyed.

  • If this happens, signals travelling along your nerves can slow down, get blocked, speed up, or get mixed up.

  • This can affect how different parts of your body work. For example, your brain may send a message to your hand to pick up a cup. But if the signal gets mixed up, your hand may not move the way you want it to. Or the movement may be too weak or jerky for you to pick up the cup.

  • MS can cause many different symptoms. This is because the symptoms you get depends on where in your brain and spinal cord the inflammation happens. (For more information, see What are the symptoms of multiple sclerosis?)

  • The inflammation from MS can come and go. But if it keeps coming back, your nerves may get permanently damaged.

Scientists don't know exactly what causes MS. But a lot of research is going on to try to find out.

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Last Updated: March 25, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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