Multiple sclerosis (MS) is thought to be an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system (CNS). The central nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. MS primarily attacks the coating around nerve cells called myelin. This leaves scars (also called plaques or lesions) that interfere with nerve conduction and produces the symptoms of MS. Symptoms of multiple sclerosis vary depending on the location of lesions.
Multiple sclerosis affects about 1 in 1,000 people. About 450,000 people in United States and Canada are living with multiple sclerosis. Although the peak age of diagnosis is between 20 to 50 years old, approximately 2.7 to 5 percent of people are diagnosed before the age of 16, with the majority of these cases diagnosed after the age of 10.
Multiple sclerosis is more common in women than in men. It is more common in Caucasians than in Hispanics or African Americans, and more common in temperate areas of the world away from the Equator. It is rare in Asians and other groups.
The cause of multiple sclerosis is still unknown. Researchers believe there is a genetic predisposition that is triggered by some infectious virus or bacteria in the environment. That means that MS is not genetically passed down from one generation to the next, like hair color or eye color, but a combination of genes can make one person more susceptible to the disease than another person. Subsequently, the average risk of developing multiple sclerosis is 1 in 750 but the risk of a child whose parent has MS is 1 in 40.
The symptoms of multiple sclerosis include:
- Changes in vision
- Spasticity (stiffness)
- Problems with bowel/bladder
- Emotional changes (including depression and anxiety)
- Speech difficulties
- Problems with thinking and memory
There is no cure for multiple sclerosis but there are treatment options. Treatment is aimed toward managing symptoms and slowing disease progression. Corticosteroids are used for acute exacerbations especially in the early onset of disease. Exacerbations result in new symptoms or aggravation of old symptoms by causing inflammation and demyelination in the central nervous system. Disease modifying agents, such as injections of AVONEX®, BETASERON®, COPAXONE®, REBIF®, EXTAVIA®, TYSABR®I or RITUXAN® (Rituximab), are used for relapsing forms of MS. A baclofen pump can be used to manage involuntary muscle contractions that cause stiffness.