Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a demyelinating disease in which the insulating covers of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are damaged. This damage disrupts the ability of parts of the nervous system to communicate, resulting in a range of signs and symptoms, including physical, mental, and sometimes psychiatric problems. Specific symptoms can include double vision, blindness in one eye, muscle weakness, trouble with sensation, or trouble with coordination. MS takes several forms, with new symptoms either occurring in isolated attacks (relapsing forms) or building up over time (progressive forms). Between attacks, symptoms may disappear completely; however, permanent neurological problems often remain, especially as the disease advances.
While the cause is not clear, the underlying mechanism is thought to be either destruction by the immune system or failure of the myelin-producing cells. Proposed causes for this include genetics and environmental factors such as being triggered by a viral infection. MS is usually diagnosed based on the presenting signs and symptoms and the results of supporting medical tests.
A person with MS can have almost any neurological symptom or sign, with autonomic, visual, motor, and sensory problems being the most common. The specific symptoms are determined by the locations of the lesions within the nervous system, and may include loss of sensitivity or changes in sensation such as tingling, pins and needles or numbness, muscle weakness, very pronounced reflexes, muscle spasms, or difficulty in moving; difficulties with coordination and balance (ataxia); problems with speech or swallowing, visual problems (nystagmus, optic neuritis or double vision), feeling tired, acute or chronic pain, and bladder and bowel difficulties, among others.Difficulties thinking and emotional problems such as depression or unstable mood are also common. Uhthoff’s phenomenon, a worsening of symptoms due to exposure to higher than usual temperatures, and Lhermitte’s sign, an electrical sensation that runs down the back when bending the neck, are particularly characteristic of MS.The main measure of disability and severity is the expanded disability status scale (EDSS), with other measures such as the multiple sclerosis functional composite being increasingly used in research
The condition begins in 85% of cases as a clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) over a number of days with 45% having motor or sensory problems, 20% having optic neuritis, and 10% having symptoms related to brainstem dysfunction, while the remaining 25% have more than one of the previous difficulties. The course of symptoms occurs in two main patterns initially: either as episodes of sudden worsening that last a few days to months (called relapses, exacerbations, bouts, attacks, or flare-ups) followed by improvement (85% of cases) or as a gradual worsening over time without periods of recovery (10-15% of cases). A combination of these two patterns may also occur or people may start in a relapsing and remitting course that then becomes progressive later on. Relapses are usually not predictable, occurring without warning.Exacerbations rarely occur more frequently than twice per year. Some relapses, however, are preceded by common triggers and they occur more frequently during spring and summer. Similarly, viral infections such as the common cold, influenza, or gastroenteritis increase their risk. Stress may also trigger an attack. Women with MS who become pregnant experience fewer relapses; however, during the first months after delivery the risk increases.Overall, pregnancy does not seem to influence long-term disability. Many events have been found not to affect relapse rates including vaccination, breast feeding,physical trauma and Uhthoff’s phenomenon
Multiple sclerosis is typically diagnosed based on the presenting signs and symptoms, in combination with supporting medical imaging and laboratory testing.It can be difficult to confirm, especially early on, since the signs and symptoms may be similar to those of other medical problems. The McDonald criteria, which focus on clinical, laboratory, and radiologic evidence of lesions at different times and in different areas, is the most commonly used method of diagnosis with the Schumacher and Poser criteria being of mostly historical significance. While the above criteria allow for a non-invasive diagnosis, some state that the only definitive proof is an autopsy or biopsy where lesions typical of MS are detected.
Clinical data alone may be sufficient for a diagnosis of MS if an individual has had separate episodes of neurological symptoms characteristic of the disease.In those who seek medical attention after only one attack, other testing is needed for the diagnosis. The most commonly used diagnostic tools are neuroimaging, analysis of cerebrospinal fluid and evoked potentials. Magnetic resonance imaging of the brain and spine may show areas of demyelination (lesions or plaques). Gadolinium can be administered intravenously as a contrast agent to highlight active plaques and, by elimination, demonstrate the existence of historical lesions not associated with symptoms at the moment of the evaluation. Testing of cerebrospinal fluid obtained from a lumbar puncture can provide evidence of chronic inflammation in the central nervous system. The cerebrospinal fluid is tested for oligoclonal bands of IgG on electrophoresis, which are inflammation markers found in 75–85% of people with MS. The nervous system in MS may respond less actively to stimulation of the optic nerve and sensory nerves due to demyelination of such pathways. These brain responses can be examined using visual- and sensory-evoked potentials.