Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic condition that affects the central nervous system. MS is considered to be an immune-mediated disease, which is a disease that causes the body’s immune system to act abnormally.
Although MS is classified as an immune-mediated disease, that doesn’t automatically imply that it’s an autoimmune disease. In fact, research on the topic is relatively mixed, with some experts arguing that MS doesn’t fit the standard guidelines of a classical autoimmune disease.
To date, there is no single autoantigen that has been identified for MS. In addition, multiple animal studies have shown conflicting results related to antigens, immune cells, and other factors, bringing the classification of MS into question.
Still, despite conflicting research on the subject, many scientists, doctors, and other medical professionals do classify MS as an autoimmune condition.
Although MS research has improved dramatically over the past few decades, there is still much that we don’t know about the disease.
For example, the development of MS is complicated, and scientists still aren’t entirely certain what causes the disease. However, the current consensus within the scientific community points to factors related to a person’s genetics, immune system, and environment.
In addition, MS is a highly individualized disease, which means that treatment and management of the condition can vary from person to person. For example, there are a variety of potential triggers that can lead to a relapse, but these triggers often look different depending on the person.
Ultimately, there is still more to learn about the intricacies of MS, but scientists continue to make advancements in our understanding of this condition every single day.
In people with MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks the central nervous system, effectively damaging:
- the myelin sheath that protects the nerve fibers of the central nervous system (brain, spine, and optic nerves)
- the nerve fibers
- the cells that produce myelin
With MS, the damage that happens to the nerves, myelin, and myelin-producing cells makes it difficult for the nerves of the central nervous system to send and receive messages. In turn, this leads to decreased functioning within the central nervous system, causing a wide variety of neurological symptoms.
There are certain common MS symptoms, but the symptoms each person experiences can vary depending on the disease stage, disease progression, and more. This can include:
- bladder dysfunction
- bowel problems
- cognitive disturbances
- diminished taste
- emotional disturbances
- hearing loss
- muscle spasticity
- respiratory problems
- sexual dysfunction
- speech changes
- trouble walking
- vision disturbances
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS symptoms can vary or fluctuate over time — and no two people with MS will have the exact same set of symptoms with the same exact timing.
There are four main types of MS. Each type is determined by differences in relapse, remission, and symptom severity:
- Clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) is an initial episode of MS in which early damage to the nerves causes neurological symptoms.
- Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) is defined by repeating periods of relapses, where MS symptoms are at their worst, and remission, where MS symptoms improve.
- Secondary-progressive MS (SPMS) is defined by repeating periods of relapses, followed by partial remission, and then steadily worsening functioning as the disease progresses.
- Primary-progressive MS (PPMS) is MS that slowly and progressively gets worse, with no true recoveries or remissions between relapses.
MS is an immune-mediated disease that is characterized by damage to the nerves within the central nervous system. Although many healthcare professionals define MS as an autoimmune disease, research suggests that it may not entirely fit the current criteria for an autoimmune condition.
If you or a loved one has recently received an MS diagnosis, you can find a list of our top 10 recommended MS resources here.