General MS Questions

Yes. Fatigue is unfortunately a very common problem for people with multiple sclerosis. It can be caused directly by the condition itself or by secondary factors such as heat, infections, physical disability, lack of sleep, diet or as a side effect of medication. Mental health difficulties such as depression and stress are common in people with chronic illnesses and may also exacerbate fatigue.

Unlike regular fatigue, people with MS experience a general, ongoing tiredness that cannot necessarily be relieved by rest. This can make daily tasks such as concentration and sleeping difficult. Positive lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and vitamin D supplementation can reduce fatigue. A diet high in saturated fat may also exacerbate fatigue symptoms.

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Pain is a very common symptom of MS. Between 30% and 85% of people with MS experience some form of pain during the course of the disease, which can usually be categorized as either:

  1. Nerve-related (neuropathic) pain such as pins and needle, numbness and crawling, pricking or burning sensations.
  2. Musculoskeletal pain such as painful joints, limbs and muscles.

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In the early stages of MS, the body can repair damaged myelin and nerve damage by ‘re-routing’ information around lesions. That makes it a lot easier for the body to heal and allows for recovery of symptoms. However, as MS progresses and more lesions develop the recovery ability of the nervous system is overwhelmed.

There is also degeneration of the damaged nerves and this contributes to worsening disability. The focus of the Overcoming MS Recovery Program is to stabilise MS as early as possible and prevent disability from developing.

Your chances of developing MS may be affected by any of the following factors:

  • Gender – women are three times more likely to develop MS than men.
  • Genetics – close relatives of people with MS are 30-40 times more likely to develop the disease than others.
  • Age – although MS can happen at any age, it usually develops in people’s twenties or thirties.
  • Ethnicity – Caucasians are more likely to develop multiple sclerosis than any other ethnicity.
  • Geography – multiple sclerosis is a lot more common in countries further away from the equator such as the United Kingdom, Northern Europe, the United States and Australia.
  • Viruses – numerous studies have found that people with multiple sclerosis are at least twice as likely to have had the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) as people without MS.
  • Smoking – smoking cigarettes doubles the risk of someone developing multiple sclerosis.
  • Disease – people with type one diabetes, thyroid disease or inflammatory bowel disease are more likely to develop MS than others.

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Optic neuritis is a loss of vision that occurs when the optic nerve that connects the brain and the eye becomes inflamed. It can affect one or both eyes, causing blurred vision, pain or reduced colour vision and even blindness. Usually, the symptoms of optic neuritis will clear up on their own within a few weeks.

Although there is a strong link between optic neuritis and multiple sclerosis, only 40-50% of those who get optic neuritis will be diagnosed with MS.

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People with multiple sclerosis tend to die between six and ten years earlier than the general population – one study in 2008 estimated life expectancy to be around 65 years on average. Studies have found that 56-58% of people with MS die from a cause that is directly related to the disease.

Death from infection, suicide and heart disease are all also higher for people with MS than for the general population. But it is important to note that these figures were compiled when diagnosis was later and treatments were less effective.

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The nervous system, which controls the flow of information from the brain to other parts of the body, is made up of a long chain of neurons. Many of these neurons are covered by ‘myelin sheaths’ – these fatty proteins act to both protect the neurons and make it easier for them to transfer information.

When someone develops multiple sclerosis, we think that these sheaths are mistakenly attacked by the immune system and become damaged. The areas of damage, known as lesions, partially or completely disrupt the nervous system’s flow of information. The symptoms that someone with MS experiences depend on the location and size of these lesions.

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There is a genetic element to MS. If a close relative of yours (father, mother or sibling) has MS, this does not mean that you will develop MS, but you are at an increased risk. Research has found that close relatives of people with MS are 30-40 times more likely than the general population to develop the disease.

Children of someone with MS are at much higher risk – about 1 in 10 – of developing the disease themselves. However, as multiple sclerosis is not linked to one specific gene, there is no definitive way of calculating one child’s chances of inheriting MS. Lifestyle changes such as vitamin D supplementation and a diet low in saturated fat may reduce the risk of a child developing multiple sclerosis in later life.

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Multiple sclerosis is not a contagious disease. You cannot catch multiple sclerosis from someone else who has it.

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The symptoms of MS vary greatly from person to person, as different parts of the brain and spinal cord can be affected by the condition.

Common symptom include:

  • Numbness,
  • Tingling,
  • Fatigue,
  • Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety,
  • Visual problems,
  • Muscle spasms, stiffness and weakness,
  • Mobility problems,
  • Pain,
  • Difficulty with memory and other cognitive issues,
  • Bowel problems.

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Multiple sclerosis is typically categorized into four different types:

  • Relapsing-Remitting MS
  • Secondary Progressive MS
  • Primary Progressive MS
  • Progressive Relapsing MS

For more information on each of these, visit our Types of MS section.

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Roughly 1/1000 people have multiple sclerosis (MS), although this varies widely by country – for example, places like Northern Europe and Australia have higher rates of MS than regions close to the equator.

Official estimates suggest that there are two and a half million people with MS globally, but this is almost certainly an under-estimate.  The rate of MS is increasing by two percent annually.

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Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an inflammatory, demyelinating disease that affects the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), and may lead to progressive disability.

Myelin sheaths are the insulating coatings around many of the nerves in the body and are responsible for conducting nerve impulses effectively. In people with MS, we think that the immune system attacks the myelin sheaths within the central nervous system, causing inflammation and damage. This means nerve impulses cannot be transmitted normally in the damaged areas.

This results in a wide variety of physical and cognitive symptoms, including:

  • Visual problems
  • Fatigue
  • Balance, coordination and dizziness
  • Reduced mobility
  • Pins and needles, numbness and/or tingling
  • Pain
  • Slowed thinking and/or memory problems
  • Bladder and bowel issues
  • Sexual function problems

Our About MS section has more information on the following:

While the cause of MS is not fully understood, it is clear that both genetic and environmental factors play a role. It has been shown that people who have a close relative with MS are 30-40 times more likely to develop the disease themselves.

Environmental factors such as a lack of vitamin D, smoking and dietary factors, including a high intake of saturated fat, are associated with higher rates of MS.

MS is much more common in modern, developed countries that are further from the equator.

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There is currently no cure for multiple sclerosis, but researchers now have a much greater understanding of what causes the disease. This is thought to be a combination of underlying genetic traits and environmental factors, such as a diet high in saturated fat and low levels of vitamin D.  For more information about this, see What Causes MS?

Nonetheless, it is possible to significantly improve our quality of life by making long-term lifestyle changes to our diet, levels of exercise, vitamin D and more. These are discussed extensively both on this website and in the book Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis: The Evidence-Based 7 Step Recovery Program by George Jelinek.

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