Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition that affects your brain and spinal cord. In MS, the coating that protects your nerves (myelin) is damaged. This causes a range of symptoms like blurred vision and problems with how we move think and feel.
Once diagnosed, MS stays with you for life, but treatments and specialists can help you to manage the condition and its symptoms.
More than 130,000 people in the UK have MS. In the UK people are most likely to find out they have MS in their thirties, forties and fifties. But the first signs of MS often start years earlier. Many people notice their first symptoms years before they get their diagnosis.
MS affects almost three times as many women as men. People from many different ethnic backgrounds can get MS. Read the latest statistics on MS in the UK.
What happens when you have MS?
To understand what happens in multiple sclerosis, it's useful to understand how the central nervous system works.
A substance called myelin protects the nerve fibres in the central nervous system, which helps messages travel quickly and smoothly between the brain and the rest of the body.
In MS, your immune system, which normally helps to fight off infections, mistakes myelin for a foreign body and attacks it. This damages the myelin and strips it off the nerve fibres, either slightly or completely, leaving scars known as lesions or plaques.
This damage disrupts messages travelling along nerve fibres – they can slow down, become distorted, or not get through at all.
As well as losing the myelin, there can sometimes be damage to the actual nerve fibres too. It's this nerve damage that causes the increase in disability that can occur over time.
What causes MS symptoms?
The central nervous system links everything your body does, so multiple sclerosis can cause many different types of symptoms. The specific symptoms that appear depend on which part of your central nervous system has been affected, and the job of the damaged nerve.
Symptoms could be problems with your:
But MS is different for everyone. Read about the first symptoms of MS.
What is relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis?
Relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis is a type of MS where you have relapses (symptoms getting worse) followed by recovery (that’s when it’s “remitting”).
In relapsing MS, people have distinct attacks of symptoms which then fade away either partially or completely. Symptoms you've had before might come back, or you might get new symptoms.
Once diagnosed, MS stays with you for life, but treatments and specialists can help you to manage the condition and its symptoms. We're here to help you live well with your MS and fund research to stop MS for good.
How common is multiple sclerosis?
We estimate there are over 130,000 people with MS in the UK, and each year nearly 7,000 people are newly diagnosed.
This means around 1 in every 500 people in the UK lives with MS, and each week over 130 people are diagnosed with MS.
In the UK people are most likely to find out they have MS in their thirties, forties and fifties. But the first signs of MS often start years earlier.
Facts about multiple sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is a neurological condition, meaning it affects your nerves.
‘Sclerosis’ means scarring and refers to the scars (also called lesions) that MS causes in your brain or spinal cord. These show up in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. It's ‘multiple’ sclerosis because the lesions happen in more than one place.
Everyone's MS is different so no two people, even if they’re closely related, will have the same type of symptoms, or have them as badly.
Relapsing remitting MS (RRMS) is the most common type of MS. Around 85% of people with multiple sclerosis are diagnosed with relapsing remitting MS.