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What Is Multiple Sclerosis?

Do you automatically think of a wheelchair when you hear multiple sclerosis?  It's a common association.  In fact, most people with this disease are able to function well despite having a chronic--and sometimes disabling-- disease of the central nervous system.  Multiple sclerosis affects more than a quarter of a million people in the United States -- twice as many women than men. About 200 new cases of MS are diagnosed in the US every week.

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, which means the body turns against itself. When triggered by viruses or other agents, the immune system mistakenly destroys its own healthy myelin tissue and cells rather than the invading virus. Normally, myelin insulates nerves throughout the body, allowing them to transmit impulses smoothly and quickly, without disruption. When myelin is damaged in any way, plaques or scars form which block the proper conduction of electrical impulses to and from the brain. This produces the symptoms of MS.

The symptoms and severity of MS vary greatly, depending on the areas of the central nervous system that are affected. The most common problems are with:

  • Vision
  • Coordination
  • Strength
  • Speech and swallowing
  • Bladder and bowel control
  • Sexuality
  • Cognitive function

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Created: 5/9/2001  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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