What is multiple sclerosis? Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or progress to include paralysis or loss of vision. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot be predicted. Today, advances in research and treatment are giving hope to those affected by the disease.

MS is thought to be an autoimmune disease. The body's own defense system attacks myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds and protects the nerve fibers of the central nervous system. The damaged myelin may form scar tissue known as sclerosis. Sometimes the nerve fiber is also damaged. When any part of the myelin sheath or nerve fiber is damaged or destroyed, nerve impulses to and from the brain are distorted or interrupted.

MS is not a fatal disease. Individuals have normal or near-normal life expectancies. Most people with MS learn to cope with the disease and live full, productive lives.

The symptoms of MS may include tingling, numbness, painful sensations, slurred speech, and blurred or double vision. Some people experience muscle weakness, poor balance, poor coordination, muscle tightness or spasticity, or paralysis, which may be temporary or permanent. Problems with bladder, bowel or sexual dysfunction are common, as is fatigue. MS can cause cognitive changes such as forgetfulness or difficulty concentrating. It can also cause mood swings.

Symptoms may come and go, appear in any combination and be mild, moderate or severe. There are medications and therapies to help with most of these symptoms.

Multiple sclerosis is not always easy to detect or diagnose because symptoms may come and go. In addition, other diseases of the central nervous system have some of the same symptoms. No single neurological or laboratory test can confirm or rule out multiple sclerosis.

Recent advances in medical imaging, particularly magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), are helping to clarify diagnosis. A conclusive or definitive diagnosis requires evidence of many patches of scar tissue in different parts of the central nervous system, and at least two separate attacks of the disease. A definitive diagnosis can take several months. Sometimes it takes years.

Today, there are three federally approved medications that treat multiple sclerosis: Avonex, Betaseron and Copaxone. All three drugs have been shown to be effective in slowing the natural course of the disease. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society recommends treatment with one of them for most people who have a definite diagnosis of the disease, with a relapsing-remitting course as early as possible. Research on treatment of progressive MS may lead to an expanded role for these drugs.

For more information about MS, call 1-800-FIGHT-MS (1-800-344-4867) or visit websites for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society or the North Central Texas Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

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