Multiple Sclerosis (abbreviated MS, also known as disseminated sclerosis or encephalomyelitis disseminata) is a chronic, inflammatory, demyelination disease that affects the central nervous system (CNS). MS can cause a variety of symptoms, including changes in sensation, visual problems, muscle weakness, depression, difficulties with coordination and speech, severe fatigue, cognitive impairment, problems with balance, overheating, and pain. MS will cause impaired mobility and disability in more severe cases.
Multiple sclerosis affects neurons, the cells of the brain and spinal cord that carry information, create thought and perception, and allow the brain to control the body. Surrounding and protecting some of these neurons is a fatty layer known as the myelin sheath, which helps neurons carry electrical signals. MS causes gradual destruction of myelin (demyelination) and transection of neuron axons in patches throughout the brain and spinal cord. The name multiple sclerosis refers to the multiple scars (or scleroses) on the myelin sheaths. This scarring causes symptoms which vary widely depending upon which signals are interrupted.
The predominant theory today is that MS results from attacks by an individual’s immune system on the nervous system and it is therefore usually categorized as an autoimmune disease. There is a minority view that MS is not an autoimmune disease, but rather a metabolically dependent neurodegenerative disease. Although much is known about how MS causes damage, its exact cause remains unknown.
Multiple sclerosis may take several different forms, with new symptoms occurring either in discrete attacks or slowly accruing over time. Between attacks, symptoms may resolve completely, but permanent neurologic problems often persist, especially as the disease advances. MS currently does not have a cure, though several treatments are available that may slow the appearance of new symptoms.
MS primarily affects adults, with an age of onset typically between 20 and 40 years, and is more com mon in women than in men.
Signs and symptoms
MS can cause a variety of symptoms, including changes in sensation (hypoesthesia), muscle weakness, abnormal muscle spasms, or difficulty to move; difficulties with coordination and balance (ataxia); problems in speech (dysarthria) or swallowing (dysphagia), visual problems (nystagmus, optic neuritis, or diplopia), fatigue and acute or chronic pain syndromes, bladder and bowel difficulties, cognitive impairment, or emotional symptomatology (mainly depression).
The initial attacks are often transient, mild (or asymptomatic), and self-limited. They often do not prompt a health care visit and sometimes are only identified in retrospect once the diagnosis has been made based on further attacks. The most common initial symptoms reported are: changes in sensation in the arms, legs or face (33%), complete or partial vision loss (optic neuritis) (16%), weakness (13%), double vision (7%), unsteadiness when walking (5%), and balance problems (3%); but many rare initial symptoms have been reported such as aphasia or psychosis. Fifteen percent of individuals have multiple symptoms when they first seek medical attention. For some people the initial MS attack is preceded by infection, trauma, or strenuous physical effort.
Multiple sclerosis is difficult to diagnose in its early stages. In fact, definite diagnosis of MS cannot be made until there is evidence of at least two anatomically separate demyelinating events occurring at least thirty days apart.
Historically different criteria were used. The Schumacher criteria and Poser criteria were both popular. Currently, McDonald criteria represents international efforts to standardize the diagnosis of MS using clinical data, laboratory data, and radiologic data.
Clinical data alone may be sufficient for a diagnosis of MS. If an individual has suffered two separate episodes of neurologic symptoms characteristic of MS, and the individual also has consistent abnormalities on physical examination, a diagnosis of MS can be made with no further testing. Since some people with MS seek medical attention after only one attack, other testing may hasten the diagnosis and allow earlier initiation of therapy.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain and spine is often used to evaluate individuals with suspected MS. MRI shows areas of demyelination as bright lesions on T2-weighted images or FLAIR (fluid attenuated inversion recovery) sequences. Gadolinium contrast is used to demonstrate active plaques on T1-weighted images. Because MRI can reveal lesions which occurred previously but produced no clinical symptoms, it can provide the evidence of chronicity needed for a definite diagnosis of MS.
Testing of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) can provide evidence of chronic inflammation of the central nervous system. The CSF is tested for oligoclonal bands, which are immunoglobulins found in 85% to 95% of people with definite MS (but also found in people with other diseases). Combined with MRI and clinical data, the presence of oligoclonal bands can help make a definite diagnosis of MS. Lumbar puncture is the procedure used to collect a sample of CSF.
The brain of a person with MS often responds less actively to stimulation of the optic nerve and sensory nerves. These brain responses can be examined using visual evoked potentials (VEPs) and somatosensory evoked potentials (SEPs). Decreased activity on either test can reveal demyelination which may be otherwise asymptomatic. Along with other data, these exams can help find the widespread nerve involvement required for a definite diagnosis of MS.
Another test which may become important in the future is measurement of antibodies against myelin proteins such as myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein (MOG) and myelin basic protein (MBP). As of 2007, however, there is no established role for these tests in diagnosing MS.
The signs and symptoms of MS can be similar to other medical problems, such as neuromyelitis optica, stroke, brain inflammation, infections such as Lyme disease (which can produce identical MRI lesions and CSF abnormalities, tumors, and other autoimmune problems, such as lupus. Additional testing may be needed to help distinguish MS from these other problems.
There is no known definitive cure for multiple sclerosis. However, several types of therapy have proven to be helpful. Different therapies are used for patients experiencing acute attacks, for patients who have the relapsing-remitting subtype, for patients who have the progressive subtypes, for patients without a diagnosis of MS who have a demyelinating event, and for managing the various consequences of MS attacks. Treatment is aimed at returning function after an attack, preventing new attacks, and preventing disability.
Various disease-modifying treatments have been approved by the USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA); as well as in other countries; for multiple sclerosis. More treatments are being studied and undergoing the approval process.
GLATIRAMER ACETATE: (trade name Copaxone)
MITOXANTRONE: (trade name Novantrone)
NATALIZUMAB: (trade name Tysabri)
Relapsing-remitting symptomatic attacks can be treated. Patients are typically given high doses of intravenous corticosteroids, such as methylprednisolone, to end the attack sooner and leave fewer lasting deficits. Patients’ self-reporting indicates that many find benefit from a number of other medicines.
Currently there are no approved treatments for primary progressive multiple sclerosis, though several medications are being studied.
Pain relief medications and treatments for symptoms; as well as treatments under investigation are described at Therapies for multiple sclerosis.