What is multiple sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, neurodegenerative condition that affects the central nervous system (CNS).
The body’s own immune system appears to attack the protective sheath of fatty protein, called myelin, which surrounds the nerves in the brain, spinal cord and the optic nerve. An attack results in inflammation and development of one or more lesions, resulting in scarring (sclerotic plaque), forming on the nerves. These lesions interfere with the nerve messages sent back and forward through the brain, and spinal cord.
There are 4 main types of MS:
- Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) – approximately 85% of people are initially diagnosed with RRMS
- Primary-progressive MS
- Secondary-progressive MS (SPMS)
- Progressive-relapsing MS.
MS is the most common degenerative neurological condition diagnosed in young adults (people aged 20 to 40) and affects more women than men at a ratio of 3:1.
Signs and symptoms
MS affects people differently and is an unpredictable disease. There are different:
- types of MS
- courses for disease progression
- symptoms which can appear sporadically or be ongoing.
Symptoms may include:
- muscle weakness
- loss of balance
- vision problems
Symptoms depend on which part of the central nervous system is being affected at the time.
How is MS diagnosed?
There is no one test which says a person has MS. Unfortunately, the process can be difficult, and time consuming, as each person’s case of MS varies, and presents with different symptoms.
The neurologist will assess a person’s medical history, perform a thorough examination and detail their history and symptoms, before making a formal diagnosis.
In most cases, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is performed on the brain and spinal cord. This type of scan shows pictures of the inflammation, and areas of scar tissue, in the CNS. In some cases, evoked potentials (nerve transmission speed) may be measured and/or a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) may be required.
What causes MS?
It is not yet known what causes multiple sclerosis, or why it affects one person and not another. As a result, people with MS are often faced with uncertainty about the future. The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Western Australia (MSWA) supports people living with MS in WA, by:
- providing support services for people with MS, and their families, to help maintain their health as long as possible, until a cure is discovered
- funding research into a cause and a cure for MS
- building high support accommodation and respite facilities in various locations around WA.
The condition is not contagious, and while MS is not directly inherited, genetics does play an important role in who gets the disease. Current research into understanding the cause of MS is focusing on the role of genetics, exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus, lifestyle factors and vitamin D.
Treatment of multiple sclerosis
Treatments for RRMS aim to reduce the number and severity of relapses; ultimately reducing the damage that occurs leading to longer-term disability.
Early treatment is highly recommended and may involve a mix of medical treatments, medication and therapies. The majority of people diagnosed with MS do not become severely disabled.
Disease modifying therapies (DMTs) are medications which have been shown to decrease the frequency and severity of attacks or relapses, and slow the progression of disability in relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis.
At present, there are only DMTs available for the relapsing-remitting form of MS. DMTs do not appear to modify the progressive forms of MS when people are not having relapses. There is also very little research evidence as to the safety of using DMTs during pregnancy and breast feeding. For this reason, treatment is generally suspended during this time.
It is important to discuss your options, and questions, thoroughly with your neurologist. The MSWA Nursing Team has information about these products and extensive experience with training, and side effect management, for all of the DMTs currently available.
Where to get help
- See your doctor
- Visit a GP after hours
- Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222
- MS is the most common degenerative neurological condition diagnosed in young adults (people aged 20 to 40).
- MS is not contagious.
- The majority of people diagnosed with MS do not become severely disabled.
This information provided by
The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Western Australia
This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.