Although multiple sclerosis (MS) was first diagnosed in 1849, the earliest known description of a person with possible MS dates from fourteenth century Holland. An unpredictable disease of the central nervous system, MS can range from relatively benign to somewhat disabling to devastating as communication between the brain and other parts of the body is disrupted.
During an MS attack, inflammation occurs in areas of the white matter of the central nervous system in random patches called plaques. This process is followed by destruction of myelin, the fatty covering that insulates nerve cell fibers in the brain and spinal cord. Myelin facilitates the smooth, high-speed transmission of electrochemical messages between the brain, the spinal cord, and the rest of the body; when it is damaged, neurological transmission of messages may be slowed or blocked completely, leading to diminished or lost function. The name "multiple sclerosis" signifies both the number (multiple) and condition (sclerosis, from the Greek term for scarring or hardening) of the demyelinated areas in the central nervous system.
No one knows exactly how many people have MS. It is believed that, currently, there are approximately 250,000 to 350,000 people in the United States with MS diagnosed by a physician. This estimate suggests that approximately 200 new cases are diagnosed each week.
A physician can diagnose MS in some patients soon after the onset of the illness. In others, however, physicians may not be able to readily identify the cause of the symptoms, leading to years of uncertainty and multiple diagnoses punctuated by baffling symptoms that mysteriously wax and wane.
Once a diagnosis is made with confidence, patients must consider a profusion of information -- and misinformation -- associated with this complex disease. This brochure is designed to convey the latest information on the diagnosis, course, and possible treatment of MS, as well as highlights of current research. Although a pamphlet cannot substitute for the advice and expertise of a physician, it can provide patients and their families with information to understand MS better so that they can actively participate in their care and treatment.
The vast majority of patients are mildly affected, but in the worst cases MS can render a person unable to write, speak, or walk.