Multiple Sclerosis: Overview and Facts

By Julia Aparicio

Multiple Sclerosis: Overview and Facts

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system in which communication between the brain and other parts of the body is disturbed. The condition, which affects the spinal cord and brain, occurs when the nervous system attacks the myelin sheath, the substance that encases and protects nerve cells. This damage to the sheath blocks or slows down messages between the brain and body. Over time, damage to the myelin sheath can cause deterioration of the nerves, which can become permanently affected. estimates that 400,000 Americans have MS. Women develop the disease at twice the rate of men.

While the cause is unknown, research has shown the disease is caused by the body’s immune system responding in an irregular way and attacking the central nervous system, which consists of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Typically, the immune system helps to protect the body against outside forces, such as bacteria or viruses. An autoimmune disease causes the immune system to damage the body instead. In the case of MS, the body attacks the myelin sheath. It has not yet known what causes the body to do so, but several outside factors, including genetics and environmental influences, could be responsible.

According to the Mayo Clinic, factors that could increase a person’s risk of developing MS include:

  • While MS can occur at any age, it typically affects people between the ages of 15 and 60.
  • Women are approximately twice as likely to develop MS than men.
  • Family history. If a person’s parent or sibling has had the disease, that person is at a higher risk for developing MS.
  • A multitude of different viruses have been linked to MS, including Epstein-Barr, the virus that causes infectious mononucleosis.
  • People of Northern European descent have a greater risk of developing MS, while people of African, Asian, and Native American descent have the lowest risk.
  • MS is more common in areas with temperate climates, such as the northern U.S., Canada, Europe, New Zealand, and southeastern Australia.
  • Particular autoimmune diseases. A person with a thyroid disease, Type 1 diabetes, or inflammatory bowel disease has a slightly higher risk for MS.
  • People who smoke and experience initial symptoms of MS are more likely than non-smokers to develop a second event that confirms Relapsing-Remitting MS, the most common form of the disease.

Certain individuals also may have a predisposition making them extra vulnerable to triggers in the environment than can cause MS.

Last Reviewed 4/11/2016

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Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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