• Disease Basics

    Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, disabling disease affecting the central nervous system, composed of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. The disease affects more than two million people worldwide. MS is thought to be an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body's immune system mistakenly attacks the person's healthy tissues. The underlying cause of the immune system's malfunction in MS patients is not yet understood.

    Neurologists Claudia J. Chaves, MD (left), and Ann Camac, MD, consult on an MS patient's caseIn patients with MS, immune system attacks target the protective insulation (myelin) surrounding the nerve fibers of the central nervous system, producing inflammation, destruction and scarring. Scar tissue (sclerosis) forms in place of the myelin and causes a slowing and/or blockage of electrical signals from the brain to other parts of the body. The physical symptoms associated with MS—which vary from person to person, and even from time to time in the same person—are a direct result of this impaired transmission of nerve signals.

    There is currently no cure for MS, though there are treatments and medications available to help control symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

    MS typically progresses along one of four clinical courses, each of which may be mild, moderate or severe:

    • Relapsing-remitting MS: Patients experience flare-ups (also known as relapses or attacks) of symptoms every few years. These episodes last several weeks or months, but are then followed by partial or complete recovery (remission) periods. Symptoms may worsen with each reappearance.
    • Primary-progressive MS: Patients show a slow, but steady, progression of symptoms from their initial onset. Though there are no distinct relapses (attacks) or remissions (recovery periods), the rate of the symptoms' progression may vary over time.
    • Secondary-progressive MS: For years, patients experience the relapsing-remitting form of the disease, but then, suddenly, symptoms begin to progressively worsen.
    • Progressive-relapsing MS: Patients' symptoms gradually worsen after symptoms first appear. However, these patients also have clear periods of relapse, with or without recovery (remission).
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