Learn the MS basics
Introduction to MS
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).
- 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
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- Numbness and tingling
- Walking and balance
- Muscle weakness and stiffness
- Speech and swallowing
- Bladder and bowel
- Sexual functioning
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:
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:
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:
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:
- Multiple sclerosis by the numbers: facts, statistics and you. Available at: http://www.healthline.com/health/multiple-sclerosis/facts-statistics-infographic. Last accessed: October 2017.
- Central Nervous System (CNS). Available at: https://www.mstrust.org.uk/a-z/central-nervous-system-cns Last accessed: October 2017.
- What is myelin? Available at: https://www.nationalmssociety.org/What-is-MS/Definition-of-MS/Myelin. Last accessed: October 2017.
- Kamm C et al. Eur Neurol. 2014; 72(3-4): 132-41.
- Hersh C, Fox RJ. Multiple sclerosis. Available at: http://www.clevelandclinicmeded.com/medicalpubs/diseasemanagement/neurology/multiple_sclerosis/. Last accessed: October 2017.
- Glossary. Available at: https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Glossary#P. Last accessed: October 2017.
- Giovanni G et al. Brain health: time matters in multiple sclerosis. Available at: https://www.msbrainhealth.org/report. Last accessed: October 2017.
- Mapping mulitple sclerosis around the world. Available at: https://www.msif.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Atlas-of-MS.pdf. Last Accessed October 2017.
- Emotional and cognitive changes. Available at: https://www.msif.org/about-ms/symptoms-of-ms/cognition-and-emotional-changes/. Last accessed October 2018.
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