Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive neurological disease that can affect the central nervous system (CNS).

Every time you take a step, blink, or move your arm, your CNS is at work. Millions of nerve cells in the brain send signals throughout the body to control these processes and functions:

  • movement
  • sensation
  • memory
  • cognition
  • speech

Nerve cells communicate by sending electrical signals via nerve fibers. A layer called the myelin sheath covers and protects these fibers. That protection ensures that each nerve cell properly reaches its intended target.

In people with MS, immune cells mistakenly attack and damage the myelin sheath. This damage results in the disruption of nerve signals.

Damaged nerve signals can cause debilitating symptoms, including:

MS affects everyone differently. The severity of the disease and the types of symptoms vary from person to person. There are different types of MS, and the cause, symptoms, progression of disability may vary.

The exact cause of MS is unknown. However, scientists believe that four factors may play a role in the development of the disease.

MS is considered an immune-mediated disease: The immune system malfunctions and attacks the CNS. Researchers know that the myelin sheath is directly affected, but they don’t know what triggers the immune system to attack the myelin.

Research into which immune cells are responsible for the attack is ongoing. Scientists are seeking to uncover what causes these cells to attack. They’re also searching for methods to control or stop the progression of the disease.

Several genes are believed to play a role in MS. Your chance of developing MS is slightly higher if a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, has the disease.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, if one parent or sibling has MS, the chances of getting the disease are estimated to be around 2.5 to 5 percent in the United States. The chances for an average person are approximately 0.1 percent.

Scientists believe that people with MS are born with a genetic susceptibility to react to certain unknown environmental agents. An autoimmune response is triggered when they encounter these agents.

Epidemiologists have seen an increased pattern of MS cases in countries located farthest from the equator. This correlation causes some to believe that vitamin D may play a role. Vitamin D benefits immune system function.

People who live near the equator are exposed to more sunlight. As a result, their bodies produce more vitamin D.

The longer your skin is exposed to sunlight, the more your body naturally produces the vitamin. Since MS is considered an immune-mediated disease, vitamin D and sunlight exposure may be linked to it.

Researchers are considering the possibility that bacteria and viruses may cause MS. Viruses are known to cause inflammation and a breakdown of myelin. Therefore, it’s possible that a virus could trigger MS.

It’s also possible that the bacteria or virus that have similar components to brain cells trigger the immune system to mistakenly identify normal brain cells as foreign and destroy them.

Several bacteria and viruses are being investigated to determine if they contribute to the development of MS. These include:

Other risk factors may also increase your chances of developing MS. These include:

  • Sex. Women are at least two to three times more likely to develop relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS) than men. In the primary-progressive (PPMS) form, numbers of men and women are approximately equal.
  • Age. RRMS usually affects people between the ages of 20 and 50. PPMS usually occurs approximately 10 years later than other forms.
  • Ethnicity. People of northern European descent are at highest risk of developing MS.

There are several triggers that people with MS should avoid.

Stress

Stress can trigger and worsen MS symptoms. Practices that help you reduce and cope with stress can be beneficial. Add de-stressing rituals to your day, such as yoga or meditation.

Smoking

Cigarette smoke can add to the progression of MS. If you smoke, look into effective methods of quitting. Avoid being around secondhand smoke.

Heat

Not everyone sees a difference in symptoms due to heat, but avoid direct sun or hot tubs if you find you react to them.

Medication

There are several ways that medication can worsen symptoms. If you’re taking many drugs and they interact poorly, talk to your doctor. They can decide which drugs are vital and which ones you may be able to stop taking.

Some people stop taking their MS medications because they have too many side effects or they believe they aren’t effective. However, these medicines are critical to help prevent relapses and new lesions, so it’s important to stay on them.

Lack of sleep

Fatigue is a common symptom of MS. If you’re not getting enough sleep, this can decrease your energy even more.

Infections

From urinary tract infections to the cold or flu, infections can cause your symptoms to worsen. In fact, infections cause approximately one-third of all flare-ups of MS symptoms, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Although there’s no cure for MS, there are treatment options to help manage MS symptoms.

The most common treatment category is corticosteroids, such as oral prednisone (Prednisone Intensol, Rayos) and intravenous methylprednisolone. These drugs reduce nerve inflammation.

In cases that don’t respond to steroids, some doctors prescribe plasma exchange. In this treatment, the liquid portion of your blood (plasma) is removed and separated from your blood cells. It’s then mixed with a protein solution (albumin) and put back into your body.

Disease-modifying therapies are available for RRMS and PPMS, but they may entail significant health risks. Talk to your doctor about whether any are right for you.

While much of what causes and prevents MS is a mystery, what’s known is that those with MS are living increasingly full lives. This is the result of treatment options and overall improvements in lifestyle and health choices.

With continued research, strides are being made every day to help stop the advancement of MS.