10 Must-Know Facts About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a disease of the nervous system that can affect the brain and spinal cord. MS symptoms are caused by the progressive loss of myelin, the outer protective lining of nerve fibers. Myelin is like the coating around an electrical wire: Without enough myelin, nerve signals have trouble passing through the nerves. The full cause of MS is not completely understood, but it’s partly due to the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking myelin cells. That’s why multiple sclerosis is called an autoimmune disease. Still, there is more to learn about this condition, which underscores the importance of raising awareness around the globe. And every year on the last Wednesday in May, we can do just that when we observe World MS Day.

Anyone Can Get MS

In the United States, MS affects approximately 350,000 people. More than two million people worldwide are affected by MS. “The incidence varies widely,” said John Wilson, MD, a neurologist at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Maywood, Ill., part of the Loyola University Health System. “It is a disease that is more common the farther north from the equator one gets. It tends to be more common in women than men and to occur in people between 20 and 40, but people of any age can get it.” According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, about 200 people are diagnosed with MS every week.

MS Causes and Triggers Vary

Doctors think MS is caused by a combination of factors. “Part of the cause is genetic, but there must also be some environmental factors that trigger the disease,” said Matthew McCoyd, MD, a neurologist, assistant professor, and associate neurology residency program director with the Loyola University Health System in Illinois. “Possible MS triggers may include things like decreased sunlight, vitamin D deficiency, or viral infections.” The genes you’re born with may increase your risk for MS, but there is no evidence that MS is directly passed down through families.

Some MS Symptoms Are Common, Some Are Not

“Commonly, multiple sclerosis can cause problems with vision, including sudden loss of vision in one eye, or, rarely, both eyes; double vision; blurred vision; severe dizziness; imbalance; numbness; weakness; muscle spasms; tremors; speech problems; depression; and facial pain,” said Dr. Wilson. “While facial pain is a symptom of MS, headache is almost never caused by MS.” Other MS symptoms include fatigue and mental fogginess or confusion. The most important thing to know about these symptoms is that they come and go unpredictably.

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