Introduction to MS

Introduction to MS
MS Population

Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects about 2.5 million people around the world (as of March 2015). And because everybody experiences MS differently, there are no hard and fast rules about what life with the condition will mean for you. However, we do know that MS is a neurological disease that damages cells in your central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of your brain and spinal cord.

The CNS is your body’s main control centre. It controls most of the things your body does from breathing to your memory. The cells in your CNS making all of this possible are called neurons (sometimes called nerve cells).

Introduction to MS cns diagram

Here’s a short summary of what happens to your CNS when you’re living with MS and the impact this can have on your life:

  • MS causes damage to your CNS and slows the signals moving along your nerves
  • Symptoms range from problems with mobility to problems with vision, extreme tiredness and thinking, but these are just a few examples

Your immune system normally helps your body to fight bacteria, viruses and other foreign substances that enter your body. It’s not currently known why, but MS causes changes to the immune system. When you have MS, part of your immune system mistakenly turns against the healthy cells in your CNS.

It’s this abnormal response that damages the fatty coating surrounding your nerve cells – called myelin.

Normally, this myelin coating helps signals to move quickly along your nerve cells. This clever messaging system is responsible for every move you make, every sensation you feel and every memory and thought you’ve ever had.

However, when myelin is damaged by MS, the signals travelling along your nerve cells slow down – a bit like removing the coating around electrical wires. This damage affects those all-important messages (or nerve impulses) that tell other parts of the body what to do.

And once the myelin around the nerve is completely gone, the signal may become blocked altogether. This means messages between your brain and the rest of your body can become disrupted, and it’s this disruption that eventually leads to the various symptoms of MS. It’s also why MS symptoms can be so unpredictable, because there is no way of knowing which messages might be affected.

Take a look at the diagram below to see how your nerve signals can be disrupted in MS:

Introduction to MS nerve signals disrupted

Areas of the CNS where myelin has been damaged or has disappeared are called lesions or plaques. Depending on the location of the lesion, you may or may not experience symptoms. For example, a lesion in your optic nerve may cause problems with your eyesight, while other lesions may go unnoticed for much longer. These are called silent lesions, and only a special medical imaging technique called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect them in your CNS.

Interested in learning more? Read our content about MRI scans

Because the CNS controls most things the body does, you can experience a wide range of symptoms while living with MS. Try to remember that everyone living with MS is different and will experience different symptoms. It is very unlikely that you will experience all the symptoms listed below.

Some of the physical symptoms include:

Introduction to MS physical symptoms
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Vision
  • Walking and balance
  • Muscle weakness and stiffness
  • Tremors
  • Speech and swallowing
  • Bladder and bowel
  • Sexual functioning

You may also experience problems with thinking and memory (sometimes grouped together as cognitive problems), as these are also common in people living with MS.

Some examples also include problems with:

Introduction to MS cognitive problems
  • Attention
  • Concentration
  • Problem solving

Explore the symptoms of MS using our interactive body.

Now you understand more about MS, take a look at the different treatment types available.

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