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Multiple Sclerosis (MS)


UK [1]

  • Around 85,000 people in the UK have MS

What is it?

Multiple Sclerosis is the most common neurological disorder among young adults, currently there is no known cure. MS is the result of damage to myelin - a protective sheath surrounding nerve fibres of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). When myelin is damaged, this interferes with messages between the central nervous system and other parts of the body. MS is usually diagnosed between 20 and 40 years of age. It is more common in women, with a ratio of 2 men to 3 women affected. It is more common in temperate rather than tropical climates. It has a wide range of symptoms and affects every individual differently.


A wide range of symptoms that vary in severity and duration are experienced by people with MS. Some of the more common symptoms include fatigue, pain, visual problems, spasms and stiffness and problems with bladder or bowel control. Symptoms are not necessarily unique to MS and could be caused by other conditions. The stress of being diagnosed and living with MS can result in some people with MS experiencing depression. It is also possible that some people with MS will have emotional or cognitive symptoms directly caused by the inflammation or nerve damage MS can cause.


MS shows up differently in each person. There are four types of MS:

  • Benign MS starts with a small number of mild attacks followed by complete recovery. It does not worsen over time and there is no permanent disability. The first symptoms usually affect sensation or sight. Around 20% of people with MS have this type
  • Relapsing-remittng MS, for most people MS starts as this type. They have relapses (a flare-up of symptoms), that tend to be unpredictable and their causes are unclear. Then remissions (periods of recovery), that can last any length of time - even years. Around 25% of people with MS have this type
  • Secondary progressive MS is the most common type. Many people who start out with relapsing-remitting MS later develop secondary progressive MS. This means that disability does not go away after a relapse and progressively worsens between attacks, or that the cycle of attack followed by remission is replaced by a steady progression of disability. Around 40% of people with MS develop this type, usually about 15 to 20 years after the initial onset of MS
  • Primary progressive MS. People with progressive MS have greater disability. Some people with MS never have distinct relapses and remissions. From the start they experience steadily worsening symptoms and progressive disability. This may level off at any time or may continue to get worse. Around 15% of people with MS have this type, which is also known as chronic progressive


It is thought that many factors are involved in MS, although no single cause has been identified.

An environmental agent like a virus or bacterial infection may be involved. Environmental factors seem to be influential if they are experienced by an individual in the first 15 years of life. However, no single virus has been identified as being responsible for MS.

Although MS is not hereditary (i.e. passed directly from parent to child), it can occur in more than one member of the same family. The presence of certain genes seem to make an individual more susceptible to this condition. However, these same genes are also common in the general population.

Countries with a temperate climate have a higher incidence of MS cases although at the moment no-one knows why this is the case. Some studies suggest that people who migrate to areas with temperate climates after the age of about 15 retain the likelihood of developing MS corresponding to their country of origin.

Further information

Acknowledgements: This section has been developed with the help of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

[1] Multiple Sclerosis Society (2007) About MS. [accessed 29/11/12].


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