Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic condition that affects the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. It can cause diverse symptoms.

In many cases, MS is progressive. That means it generally becomes more severe over time. However, medications are available to delay the progression of MS.

Understanding the short- and long-term effects of MS is the first step toward learning to manage them. Your doctor can help you learn about ways to reduce the effect of MS on your day-to-day life.

MS can cause varied symptoms

If you have MS, overactive immune cells in your body damage the myelin sheath that protects nerve fibers in your central nervous system. This causes damaged areas known as lesions to form.

When lesions form on your brain or spinal cord, they disrupt the movement of nerve signals in your body. This can cause a variety of symptoms.

For example, common symptoms include:

  • fatigue
  • changes to your vision
  • tingling and numbness in your face, trunk, or limbs
  • weakness and pain in your muscles
  • loss of balance and coordination
  • problems with your memory, concentration, or other cognitive functions

MS can also cause less commonly known symptoms, such as tremors or paralysis. Not everyone experiences these symptoms.

Symptoms can change over time

The symptoms of MS vary from one person to another. They can also change over time in the same person.

For example, some people develop symptoms that get partially or fully better during periods of remission. Those symptoms may come back later during attacks or relapses. People can also experience symptoms that persist over time.

As time passes, new or more severe symptoms may develop. That’s why it’s important for you to manage the condition carefully with treatment. Following a treatment plan may help treat current symptoms and reduce the likelihood of new symptoms.

Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) is the most common type

MS is classified into three main types, based on how the condition progresses. RRMS is the most common type of MS. It accounts for approximately 85 percent of new diagnoses, reports the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS).

People with RRMS experience acute attacks of symptoms, known as relapses. These attacks are followed by periods of remission.

During relapses, you develop new symptoms, or your existing symptoms get worse. During remission, some or all of your symptoms get better.

The other types of MS include secondary progressive MS (SPMS) and primary progressive MS (PPMS). Most people with RRMS eventually develop SPMS. Only about 15 percent of people with MS have PPMS.

MS can cause disability

According to the NMSS, most people with MS do not become severely disabled.

However, symptoms and complications of MS can potentially affect your ability to complete daily tasks. This might interfere with your work, home life, or relationships.

In general, the risk of disability increases as time passes.

According to NMSS, about two-thirds of people with MS maintain their ability to walk. Some may need to use a cane or other assistive device.

Treatment is available

There are two main groups of medication used to treat MS: disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) and symptomatic drugs.

DMTs are designed to slow the progression of MS. They may help to:

  • limit the number and size of lesions that form
  • reduce the frequency and severity of attacks or relapses
  • prevent or delay disability

Most DMTs have been developed to treat RRMS. However, some are available to treat SPMS or PPMS.

Symptomatic drugs are used to treat symptoms of MS. Depending on your specific symptoms, your doctor might prescribe one or more symptomatic drugs to manage them.

Your doctor might also prescribe other treatments, such as physical or occupational therapy. In some cases, you might benefit from using an assistive device, such as a cane.

Many people lead long lives with MS

To reduce your risk of complications and disability from MS, early diagnosis and treatment are both important.

Your doctor will ask you to schedule regular checkups to monitor and manage the condition over time. Following your recommended treatment plan may help improve your long-term outlook with MS.

Leading an overall healthy lifestyle might also help you maintain good quality of life with the condition. For example, exercising, eating a healthy diet, and finding ways to relax may make a difference.

The takeaway

MS can cause a range of different symptoms that often change as the condition progresses. To help delay the progression of MS, many medications are available. Your doctor may also suggest treatments that are intended to treat specific symptoms.

Talk to your doctor to learn more about the potential short- and long-term effects of MS, as well as the strategies you can use to prevent or manage those effects.