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Overview of multiple sclerosis (MS)

Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects the central nervous system. Your central nervous system is made up of your brain, spinal cord and optic nerves (the nerves that carry images from your eyes to your brain).

An MS attack causes inflammation that leads to scarring (also called lesions) on your nerves. This can lead to a lot of different symptoms.

Everyone with MS has slightly different symptoms depending on the location, size and number of inflamed areas. The inflammation can heal over time, and symptoms can go away or become permanent.

Multiple sclerosis affects around one in 1,000 New Zealanders. The chances of having MS increase to 30 in 1,000 people if you have a near relative (mother, father, brother or sister) with MS. However, most people with a near relative with MS don't get it. Women are three times more likely to get MS than men.

Multiple sclerosis usually develops between the ages of 20 and 50, and most commonly in the early 30s. Most people with MS will live to a similar age to others around them.

Being diagnosed with MS can be a difficult and worrying time. Being well-informed and getting support can help and prepare you for the future. Many people with MS are able to live normal lives with some or no disability.

Symptoms of MS

Multiple sclerosis symptoms typically get worse for several days, then stay the same for a few days or weeks, then improve over the next month.

The most common symptoms of MS are:

Causes of MS

Doctors think MS is an autoimmune disease, possibly triggered by an infection. In autoimmune conditions, your immune system starts to attack parts of your own body. MS is not contagious or infectious so you can't catch it from someone who has it.

There are different types of MS. The most common are:

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On the next page: Diagnosing & treating multiple sclerosis (MS)

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by Canterbury Initiative multiple sclerosis workgroup. Last reviewed November 2018.

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Page reference: 421855

Review key: HIMSC-58142