What Is MS?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is believed to be an autoimmune disease affecting the central nervous system (CNS)—the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. The nerves in the CNS are surrounded by a protective fatty material called myelin, which helps nerve fibers conduct electrical impulses. In MS, it is thought that when the immune system attacks the CNS, the myelin is damaged–resulting in the formation of dense, scar-like tissue called sclerosis. These scars (also known as lesions) occur in multiple places throughout the CNS.

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The scar tissue affects the way electrical impulses travel along the nerve fiber, distorting and interrupting signals coming to and from the brain and spinal cord. This produces the various symptoms of MS.1

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Who Gets MS?

It's estimated that some 400,000 Americans have MS, with women developing the disease at twice the rate of men. MS isn't contagious so reporting of cases isn't required. As a result, officials can only estimate the actual number of people living with MS.

Scientists have yet to confirm whether or not geography, ethnicity, genetics and other factors contribute to the disease. MS appears to be more common in populations farther away from the equator. Although MS occurs in most ethnic groups (including African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics/Latinos), Caucasians of northern European ancestry are the majority. Evidence suggests that African-Americans may tend to have more severe problems with MS than do other ethnic groups.1

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Causes of MS

While it's not known what causes MS, most researchers believe that the body's immune system responds abnormally and attacks the central nervous system, damaging the myelin. Normally, the immune system defends the body against foreign invaders such as viruses or bacteria. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system attacks the body. In MS, the myelin is the target of the attack. While not knowing what triggers the immune system to do this, scientists agree that several factors are involved. One factor is a predisposition to being more susceptible to triggers in the environment that activate MS.1

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References
  1. Frankel D, James H. Living With Multiple Sclerosis. New York, NY: National Multiple Sclerosis Society; 2011.

A Peer's Perspective

Brett, husband, father, and professional golfer who has been living with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis since 1995.

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