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What is MS?

“I saw the neurologist this afternoon and it’s been confirmed that I have RRMS. I feel strangely relieved. Reading the posts on here and doing my research has really calmed me and made me realise, yes, getting a diagnosis of MS is pants but I will adapt and my life is not over!”

Multiple sclerosis may be a lifelong condition, but managing your MS and accessing treatment options can greatly improve your long term health.

Article medically reviewed by Karen Vernon an MS Nursing Specialist at Salford Royal Foundation Trust, UK.

Multiple sclerosis is a lifelong condition, with symptoms that can vary from person to person. While there is no permanent cure for it, advances in MS research and treatments have come a long way in the past ten years, enabling people living with MS to lead relatively normal lives.

But, what else is known about multiple sclerosis? What is MS? What happens to the human body as a result of multiple sclerosis? Who does it affect? What causes it? There’s still a lot that’s unknown about MS, but this is what we know about a condition that affects people all over the world.

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What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is a lifelong condition and it’s also something called an ‘autoimmune’ condition. An autoimmune condition is when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks itself and in the case of MS, it is the myelin sheath that is attacked. This is the protective layer designed to look after the nerves. But, when the myelin sheath is damaged, the messages that travel along the nerves are disrupted. And, when nerves are disrupted, the body’s ability to send messages and communication to and from the brain is interrupted.

Because the central nervous system essentially controls so many functions in the body, the brain and spinal cord is affected. This then leads to the symptoms caused by multiple sclerosis – such as problems with balance, movement and walking, and cognitive and speech issues. 

On a global scale, it’s estimated that around 2.5 million people have MS. In the UK, that’s approximately 130,000 people. According to the NHS, it’s diagnosed most commonly in the 20-40 age bracket – though it can be diagnosed at any age – and 2-3 times more likely to be diagnosed in women than in men.

What causes multiple sclerosis?

So while you’ve read the scientific explanation of ‘What is MS?’, frustratingly, we still don’t know the cause of MS for sure – including why some people get it and others don’t. Research into the exact cause of multiple sclerosis is ongoing. What’s been discovered so far is that it’s likely to be a combination of factors. Being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis isn’t down to any single thing and there’s nothing that you’ve done to have MS.

Research has found that multiple sclerosis numbers are more common in countries further away from the equator – the UK, northern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA – which has led to some suggestions that environment plays a part, as well as climate. 

Lower levels of Vitamin D have also been cited as a potential factor as multiple sclerosis is less prevalent in countries with a warmer, sunnier climate – and Vitamin D occurs naturally in sunlight.

Lifestyle may play a part – just as it does in numerous health conditions, and in general health. Smoking is not only believed to increase the risk of developing multiple sclerosis – it can affect the immune system – but also increasing the progression of MS and worsening the severity of symptoms. While alcohol isn’t considered a cause of multiple sclerosis, excessive consumption can also make symptoms worse – as well as impacting other health areas.

Multiple sclerosis could also be caused as a result of having an infection or virus of some sort. As yet, a single virus hasn’t been identified as a direct cause of MS, though the Epstein Barr virus, or EBV, has been studied intensively, with some evidence linking it to an increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis.

Medical professionals and researchers are learning more about multiple sclerosis all the time but there’s still lots more work to do in fully understanding the condition.

If I have MS, will my children get it too?

If you have multiple sclerosis and have children, or are planning to become a parent in the future, being concerned about ‘passing it on’ is going to be an obvious consideration. But, MS isn’t officially classed as an ‘inherited disease’, which means it’s not a condition that passes down through generations.

That said, genetics can increase the risk of being diagnosed with MS, albeit only marginally. The NHS states that there’s a chance of ‘2 to 3 in 100’ of a child of someone who has MS developing multiple sclerosis themselves. It’s around the same with a brother or sister. That’s still relatively low, and it’s definitely far, far away from being a certainty or even close to likely.

"My mom was diagnosed at 32, and I was diagnosed at 29. My mom also has a first cousin with PPMS. Research suggests MS is familial but I’ve had medical professionals try to tell me there is no family link!" @Kathleen_Brennan
“That was one of the first questions I asked the neurologist who diagnosed me. She said the chances are very low.” @Ahmed

Can MS be cured?

As it stands there isn’t a permanent cure for multiple sclerosis, though research and learning continues in an effort to find out more about this condition. 

If you’re living with multiple sclerosis, or have just been diagnosed, it’s important to remember that:

  • Although MS can cause health complications for some people, everyone is affected differently and multiple sclerosis is rarely fatal.
  • Highly-effective treatments are being developed and improved all the time. Some treatments might not be available if you have secondary progressive MS or primary progressive MS but there are still options. With the right kind of treatment, you can live as close to a normal lifestyle as possible.
  • The life expectancy of someone with multiple sclerosis is estimated to be between five and 10 years lower than average – but that difference is gradually being reduced as more is learned about MS, and treatments become more targeted and effective.

What is multiple sclerosis? What are the common symptoms? How can MS be treated? And, what’s it like to live with multiple sclerosis? All of the questions and more are covered in our Learn about MS section.

Join the Shift.ms community today – it’s completely free – to start sharing and finding help.

National MS Society






MS Trust


MS Society


Mayo Clinic