What is MS, and how does it affect you?

What is MS, and how does it affect you?

150,000 people in the UK have Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and it affects around two and half times more women than men. MS is a chronic illness that impacts the central nervous system, primarily the brain and spinal cord. Understanding MS can help with early detection, diagnosis and treatment, so let's take a look:


Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a chronic illness that impacts the central nervous system, primarily affecting the brain and spinal cord. 1 in 450 people have MS in the UK, and it affects around two and half times more women than men. MS is particularly challenging and can affect a someones life significantly, so understanding more about MS can help not only improve diagnosis pathways, but also raise awareness to enable better support with those living with MS. 

What is MS and how does it affect you?

MS is an autoimmune disease where the immune system mistakenly attacks the protective covering of nerve fibres, known as myelin. It affects more than 150,000 people in the UK.

Myelin helps to protect the nerve fibres in the central nervous system which helps messages travel quickly and smoothly between the brain and the rest of the body your body. When someone has MS, the myelin is attacked by the immune system which mistakes it for a foreign body and strips it from the nerve fibres, causing damage as it does so. This leads to inflammation and scarring (sclerosis), disrupting the communication between the brain and the rest of the body. The consequences of this disruption are wide-ranging and can vary significantly from person to person.

People with MS may experience physical symptoms such as fatigue, numbness, and muscle weakness. Cognitive functions can also be affected, leading to difficulties with memory and concentration. Emotional changes, including depression and anxiety, are common due to the unpredictability and progression of the disease.

Once diagnosed, MS is a lifelong condition but it can be managed with specialist help and treatments. 

Recognising the first signs of MS

Around 7,000 people are newly diagnosed with MS every year, and early detection and diagnosis is important as it can improve management and treatment options. However, few of us know the early signs of MS - and they can be challenging due to their subtlety and variability.

Seven key signs of MS to be aware of:

  1. Numbness and Tingling: Often starting in the face, arms, or legs, these sensations can spread and become more pronounced over time.
  2. Vision Problems: Blurred or double vision, as well as pain when moving the eyes, are common initial symptoms.
  3. Fatigue: Not just ordinary tiredness - this is debilitating exhaustion that can interfere with daily activities.
  4. Muscle Weakness and Spasms: Weakness in the limbs and muscle stiffness can make movement difficult.
  5. Balance Issues and Dizziness: Problems with coordination and frequent dizziness are often early indicators.
  6. Bladder and Bowel Dysfunction: Incontinence or constipation can be early signs of MS.
  7. Cognitive and Emotional Changes: Difficulty with focus, memory, and emotional regulation can signal the onset of MS.

MS typically begins to manifest between the ages of 20 and 40, although it can occur at any age. Women are particularly susceptible, as they are two to three times more likely to develop MS than men.

How Serious is MS Disease?

The seriousness of MS can vary widely among individuals. Some people may experience mild symptoms that progress slowly, while others may face more severe and rapidly progressing symptoms. MS can be categorised into several types, with Relapsing-Remitting MS (RRMS) being the most common. In RRMS, symptoms flare up and then improve, while other forms of MS can lead to steady declines in function without periods of remission.

The progression and impact of MS make it a serious disease, potentially leading to significant disability. However, advancements in treatment have improved the quality of life and prognosis for many people with MS. Life expectancy for those with MS is typically only slightly shorter than average, thanks to these medical advancements and improved management strategies.

The importance of early diagnosis

Early diagnosis of MS is critical for slowing disease progression and managing symptoms effectively. When MS is suspected, neurologists often use a combination of medical history, neurological exams, MRI scans, and sometimes lumbar punctures to confirm the diagnosis. Identifying MS early allows for timely intervention with disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) that can reduce the frequency and severity of flare-ups and delay progression.

How is MS managed and treated?

Treatments for MS are multifaceted, focusing on slowing disease progression, managing symptoms, and improving the overall quality of life.

Disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) play a crucial role in reducing the frequency and severity of relapses and delaying the progression of disability. These medications include interferons, glatiramer acetate, and newer oral and infusion therapies.

Symptomatic treatments address specific issues such as muscle spasms, fatigue, pain, and bladder problems, often involving a combination of medications, physical therapy, and lifestyle adjustments.

Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and stress management techniques are essential components of a comprehensive care plan. Rehabilitation services, including physical, occupational, and speech therapy, can also help maintain and enhance functional abilities depending on the severity of the condition.

Additionally, mental health support is important to help manage the emotional and psychological challenges associated with MS. Finding support online or in person is important, and talking therapies can help you process challenges that come with MS. 

How can I support a loved one with MS?

If a loved one, friend or colleague has recently been diagnosed with MS, it's important to know how you can offer support that involves understanding their needs and being there for them both physically and emotionally. Here are some practical tips to help provide effective support:

Educate yourself about MS

Learning about MS and its symptoms can help you better understand what your loved one is going through. Knowledge is empowering and can enable you to provide more effective support. A good place to start is The MS Society.

Be patient and understanding

MS symptoms can be unpredictable and vary from day to day. Being patient and understanding about their fluctuating abilities and limitations is crucial. Encourage open communication about their needs and feelings without judgment or assumption. Sometimes, just listening to what someone is dealing with can help enormously. 

Think of practical ways you can help

Daily tasks can become challenging for someone with MS. Talk to your loved one about the challenges they are finding they are coming up against often and offer help where it's specifically needed. That might be helping around the home, or offering a lift to appointments, or even just making an occasional meal to ease their load. 

Join in!

There's a huge difference between telling someone that they need to be healthy and participating yourself, so ask them what they would like you to be involved in (if anything). Meet them at their level - it might be a run, or a gentle walk that they feel able to take part in, or perhaps a yoga class for reducing stress through movement. If you both love cooking, why not stay in a make something that's healthy and nutritious? 

Listen, listen, listen

MS can take an emotional toll and being there to listen and provide a shoulder to lean on can be the most important help you can offer. Encourage them to express their feelings and validate their experiences. Joining a support group, either in-person or online, can also be beneficial for both of you.

Don't take over

While it's important to offer help, it's important not to make assumptions and 'take over' someone's independence. Assistive devices and adaptations can empower them to perform tasks on their own, fostering autonomy but we can't stress enough - it's important that this is led by what your friend or loved one is telling you they need - not what you think they need.