MS: The Basics


MS: The Basics

MS is a progressive and unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that disrupts communication between the brain and other parts of the body. The severity of the disease and its symptoms vary from person to person. The cause of MS is unknown and although there are treatments that can slow disease progression, at this time there is no known cure.

What It Is:

MS is a chronic disease of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Three factors appear to have an influence on developing MS: genetic predisposition, environmental factors such a geographical location, and a trigger, such a virus.

How It Manifests:

The nerve fibers in the central nervous system are protected and made more effective by a fatty substance, myelin, which helps the nerve fibers conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain. MS produces injury in the central nervous system when the immune system mistakenly attacks myelin. Areas of myelin damage are known as plaques, or lesions, and these eventually fill in with scar tissue. The name multiple sclerosis means “many scars.” MS can also cause destruction of the entire nerve.

The damage from lesions disrupts the transmission of nerve impulses from the central nervous system to the rest of the body causing a variety of symptoms. Common symptoms include visual changes, muscle weakness, problems with balance, fatigue, numbness, and emotional and cognitive changes but there are many others. MS has periods when the disease is quite active known as exacerbations. During exacerbations symptoms can be more pronounced, but usually subside and sometimes go away after an exacerbation.

Who Gets It:

MS is most commonly diagnosed in young adults. Eighty percent of MS patients develop MS between the ages of 16 and 45. Women are more frequently diagnosed with MS by at least 2 to 1. MS is the leading cause of disability in young women and the second leading cause of disability in young men. MS is more common among Caucasians than Blacks, Hispanics or Asians and has often been considered a disease that predominantly affects those of Northern European decent.

The worldwide prevalence is 2.7 million and over 400,000 Americans have been diagnosed with the disease. The incidence of MS is higher North of the 38th parallel. In Colorado, we estimate that one in 550 people have MS. Colorado has always been thought to have an extremely high incidence of MS, perhaps because the 40th parallel runs through Boulder. The incidence of MS increases with increased distance from the equator but the Colorado incidence appears to be similar to other areas of the same latitude.

How It's Treated:

It's only been since 1993 that medications have been available to treat MS. Today there are 14 agents approved by the FDA for the treatment of MS, but these drugs are only partially effective. The search for new agents with better efficacy is moving quickly and there are now over 30 new agents in clinical trials.

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