What is MS?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system (your brain and your spinal cord). The central nervous system cells are covered in a protective layer of fatty protein called the myelin sheath (a bit like the insulation on an electrical cable). MS is an auto-immune disease, where the immune system gets confused and instead of attacking an infection or virus, the immune system turns on itself and attacks the nerve cells, damaging this protective sheath. This process is called demyelination. The demyelination disrupts the ‘messages’ being transmitted from and to the brain, causing them to slow down, become distorted or not get through at all.

The term ‘sclerosis’ is a Greek word that means scarring. Demyelination causes many scars or lesions in different places within the central nervous system. The symptoms that occur depend on the site and severity of the lesions and this is why people with MS experience different symptoms at different times.

It is estimated that there are more than 130,000 people in the UK diagnosed with MS, that’s one in every 500. MS is commonly diagnosed in people between the ages of 20 and 30 (1). There are roughly three times as many women with MS as men (2).

In the early stages of MS, the central nervous system can sometimes repair the damaged myelin or use different pathways for the signals. This is why episodes of symptoms (relapses) can be followed by periods of time when symptoms improve or disappear altogether (remission).