Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system which is composed of the brain and spinal cord. The disease attacks the myelin which is a protective covering wrapped around the nerves of the central nervous system.
Multiple sclerosis is a complex disease and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada is here to help. No one needs to face MS alone. In communities across Canada, our volunteers and staff provide information, support, educational events and other resources for people with MS and their families. Researchers funded by the MS Society are working to develop new and better treatments. Their ultimate goal is the cure for MS.
1. How is MS diagnosed?
Establishing a diagnosis and determining the type of MS doesn’t always happen right away. By definition, a diagnosis of MS must include evidence of disease activity separated in time and space. Learn more about how MS is diagnosed.
2. What causes MS?
While the exact cause of MS is not known, current research increasingly points to a complex interplay of environmental and possibly genetic risk factors. Together these two factors may influence a risk for developing MS given a prescribed set of conditions which are yet to be discovered. MS is NOT contagious, and is NOT inherited, although the genetic influence on susceptibility is a major thrust of research supported by the MS Society of Canada and its Scientific Research Foundation.
3. Who gets MS?
Multiple sclerosis can occur at any age. It is usually diagnosed between the ages of 15 to 40, during the career and family building years. It can make its first appearance in young children and in older adults. MS is three times as likely to occur in women than in men and is seen most commonly in people of northern European background.
An estimated 55,000-75,000 Canadians have multiple sclerosis. Prevalence rates range from one MS case per 500 people to one in 1,000 across the country. Canada is a high risk area for the disease, which occurs more often in countries, like Canada that are further away from the equator. The MS Society estimates, based on current prevalence rates, that approximately 1,000 new cases of MS are diagnosed in Canada each year, which means three more Canadians are diagnosed with MS every day.
4. Does MS change over time?
Most people (about 80-85%) are diagnosed with the relapsing-remitting form of MS. Over time, from 50 to 70 % of people originally diagnosed with relapsing remitting MS will convert to secondary progressive MS, and will slowly accumulate disability. The remaining number however may have a very mild course continuing with only occasional relapses, generally good recovery, and only minor neurological disturbances accumulating for long periods of time.
5. Why do MS symptoms develop?
In MS, there is a dysfunction of the immune system resulting in the body’s defense mechanisms (designed to protect against foreign intruders such as virus and bacteria) turning their attack on the body’s own tissue, namely the myelin. Early in the disease, this attack on the myelin is characterized by inflammation of the myelin resulting in patchy inflammation of the myelin along the nerve fibres.
When this happens, the usual flow of nerve impulses along nerve fibres (axons) is interrupted or distorted. The result may be the wide variety of MS symptoms, depending upon what part or parts of the central nervous system are affected. The damaged parts of myelin are often called “lesions” or “plaques”. In its most common form, MS has well defined attacks followed by complete or partial recovery. Over time however, the myelin may lose its ability to recover, and scarring sets in, with the possibility of more permanent damage. The severity of MS, progression and specific symptoms cannot be predicted at the time of diagnosis.
6. Is multiple sclerosis fatal?
MS is not a fatal disease for the vast majority of people with MS. Most people who have MS can expect to live a normal or near normal life span, thanks to improvements in the treatment of symptoms and in other therapies for people with MS.
7. Is there hope for a cure?
Absolutely. Researchers are learning more about what causes MS everyday and zeroing in on ways to prevent it. The MS Society of Canada and its related MS Scientific Research Foundation fund investigates many aspects of the disease including:
identifying risk factors for developing MS
understanding the immune system and how it functions
recovery and repair of nervous system damage caused by MS