According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, nearly one million U.S. adults are living with multiple sclerosis (MS) – double the amount originally estimated by the MS Society. 

“Multiple sclerosis is an immune-mediated disease of the nervous system,” says Nidhiben Anadani, M.D., a neurologist with OU Health Physicians in Oklahoma City. “It commonly affects young females.”

With MS, the body’s immune system attacks the central nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Inflammation, caused by the immune system’s abnormal response, damages the myelin – protective coating around nerve fibers – and interferes with the transmission of nerve signals between the brain and spinal cord, as well as other parts of the body. Most individuals are diagnosed with MS between the ages of 20 and 50, and women are three times more likely to develop MS than men. 

“Multiple sclerosis can cause various symptoms, including vision changes, numbness and tingling, weakness in the arms and legs, difficulty walking, lack of coordination, muscle spasms, pain, fatigue, memory loss, constipation and changes in urinary habits,” says Anadani. 

There are three types of MS: relapsing remitting (RRMS), secondary progressive (SPMS) and primary progressive (PPMS). 

“Relapsing remitting MS is the most common type, commonly affects younger individuals and is most responsive to treatment,” says Anadani, adding that the majority of relapsing remitting MS patients develop secondary progressive MS at a later age. 

“Primary progressive MS is the rare form of MS and commonly affects patients in their 40s-50s,” she says. “With relapsing remitting MS, there is rapid decline in functional status, usually over days to weeks, but symptoms improve after treatment with steroids. With primary progressive MS, there is slow decline, over months to years, usually with no improvement in symptoms.”

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Anadani says factors that make MS symptoms worse include stress, infection and exposure to heat. However, there are also various lifestyle modifications that can help improve MS symptoms, like exercise, utilizing a healthy and well-balanced diet, good quality sleep, meditation and yoga. 

At this time, there is no known cause for MS. Instead, scientists believe a combination of factors lead to the development of the disease. Research for a cause continues in the areas of immunology, epidemiology, genetics and infectious agents. 

“The following risk factors are believed to increase the risk of MS: a family history of MS or other immune-mediated disease, a vitamin D deficiency, smoking tobacco, a high salt diet and infections like mononucleosis,” says Anadani. 

While MS is a life-long disease that can cause disabilities, Anadani says there are several medications that can help prevent them.

“Currently, there are more than 20 different FDA-approved medications to prevent relapse or disability from happening,” says Anadani. “Most of the medications are for treatment of relapsing remitting MS and secondary progressive MS. Primary progressive MS is hard to treat and there is only one FDA-approved medication for treatment of that type.”

Anadani also says that over the past decade, there has been an increase in literature about stem cell transplants for the treatment of MS, but it is not yet FDA-approved.