Multiple Sclerosis

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Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system. A chronic condition that can be disabling, MS occurs when a problem with the immune system causes it to attack healthy nerves in the brain, spinal cord and eye.

There are several types of MS:

  • Relapsing-remitting MS — Symptoms reappear periodically. They last for a few weeks or months, then go back into remission (a period with no symptoms). Symptoms may get worse with each occurrence.
  • Primary progressive MS — Symptoms gradually worsen after symptoms first appear. Relapses and remissions usually do not occur.
  • Secondary progressive MS — After years of relapses and remissions, symptoms suddenly begin to progressively worsen.

Compassionate Care for Patients with MS

Find care that focuses, not just on your disease, but on your whole experience. Learn about our patient-centered approach at the James Q. Miller Multiple Sclerosis Clinic. View multiple sclerosis transcript.

Risk Factors for MS

MS occurs most often in women and in people aged 15-50 years old. Other factors include:

  • Exposure to certain viruses
  • Family members who have MS or other autoimmune disorders
  • Being of Northern European descent
  • Growing up in a colder climate, as opposed to a tropical climate
  • Having certain immune system genes
  • Having inflammation of the optic nerve
  • Having low vitamin D levels
  • Smoking

Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

Symptoms may range from mild to severe and may include:

  • Numbness or tingling in the face or limbs
  • Impaired vision in one or both eyes, including:
    • Blurred vision
    • Double vision
    • Loss of vision
    • Eye pain
    • Fatigue
    • Lightheadedness
    • Muscle stiffness
    • Muscle spasms
    • Muscle weakness
    • Incoordination or falling
    • Trouble walking or maintaining balance
    • Weakness in one or more limbs
    • Bladder problems including:
      • Urgency
      • Hesitancy
      • Incomplete emptying
      • Incontinence
      • Bowel problems, including constipation
      • Sexual dysfunction
      • Slurred speech
      • Difficulty swallowing
      • Forgetfulness, memory loss and confusion
      • Difficulty concentrating or solving problems
      • Depression

Symptoms may worsen with:

  • Heat, including:
    • Hot weather
    • Hot baths or showers
    • Fever
    • Overexertion
  • Infection

Diagnosing MS

Tests may include:

  • MRI
  • Sensory evoked potentials to record the electrical responses evoked after a sensory stimulus
  • Visual evoked potential test to look for problems in the brain that affect vision
  • Lumbar puncture to check the fluid around the brain and spinal cord, which may rule out other diseases
  • Blood tests to rule out other diseases that may mimic MS

MS Treatments

There is no cure for MS, but treatment can help relieve symptoms, prevent relapses, delay disability and slow disease progression.


Medications for MS include:

  • Interferon betas
  • Immunomodulators
  • Immunosuppressives
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Corticosteroids
  • Potassium channel blockers
  • Botox injections

Other medications may also be given to treat:

  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Pain
  • Bladder or bowel problems

Physical Therapies & Lifestyle Changes

Therapies and changes may include:

  • Regular moderate exercise with your doctor's permission — swimming may be especially beneficial
  • Physical therapy to help maintain muscle strength and tone, dexterity and walking ability
  • Massage
  • High-fiber diet to prevent constipation
  • Stress-reduction techniques
  • Quitting smoking — smoking may worsen MS, causing the condition to progress to a more severe form

Psychological Therapies

Individual or group therapy can help you learn coping strategies for physical symptoms and emotional stress.

Avoiding Periods of Relapse

Some forms of MS have periods of remission that alternate with relapses. Take these steps to help avoid relapses and worsening of symptoms:

  • Get adequate rest
  • Avoid hot weather
  • Stay in air-conditioned places during periods of hot weather
  • Avoid hot showers or baths
  • Avoid overexertion and stress
  • Avoid infections that worsen MS by:
    • Using proper hygiene
    • Staying away from people who are sick
    • Thoroughly cooking food
    • Practicing safe sex


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.