Multiple sclerosis is a progressive disease that can severely damage nerves throughout the body. Symptoms tend to worsen, and as the disease progresses, it can cause impaired speech and motor skills.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) can lead to significant difficulties in performing daily tasks and can greatly affect a person’s quality of life.
There is no cure, and treatments focus on preventing and reducing MS symptoms.
MS is not as common in children as it is in adults. When it does develop in children, they and their parents and caregivers may feel fear and uncertainty about the disease.
Keep reading for more information about how MS affects children. We also describe symptoms and the range of treatments.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, nearly 1 million people in the United States have MS.
The number of children with MS is much smaller, with the same organization estimating that there are 8,000–10,000 people younger than 18 who have MS in the country.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society also report that 10,000–15,000 young people in this age bracket have experienced at least one MS symptom. They cite research indicating that about 2–5% of people with MS in the U.S. experienced a symptom before the age of 18.
MS in babies, children, and teens is similar to MS in adults. However, there are some differences:
- Compared with adults, children likely experience more frequent relapses — during which symptoms worsen significantly — one study suggests.
- Another study reports that children with MS take more time to reach motor disability milestones than adults with MS.
- However, the same study notes, children with MS still reach the milestones at a younger age than people who receive a diagnosis in adulthood.
- According to one study, lesions on the brain that result from MS were more inflamed in children with the disease, compared with adults.
- Children and juveniles with MS tend to experience difficulties with functions such as memory, concentration, and language within about 2 years of their diagnosis.
- The same research indicates that fatigue and depression may also arise during this time frame.
Learning about these characteristics can help children, parents, and caregivers better understand the disease and its progression.
The medical community is still unsure about what causes MS.
Some potential risk factors include:
Symptoms of MS in children are similar to those in adults. Some common symptoms include:
- difficulty walking
- difficulty with bowel and bladder control
- changes in vision
- muscle spasms
- tingling or numbness in the limbs, face, and other parts of the body
- changes in sensory perception
In addition, young children are more likely to experience confusion and coordination problems.
Treatments for MS in adults and children do not vary greatly, and a doctor may prescribe several of the same medications.
One of the first treatments that healthcare providers typically try involves using interferon beta 1-alpha or glatiramer acetate. These are self-injected medications that help with limiting or eliminating symptoms associated with MS.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not approved either interferon beta 1-alpha or glatiramer acetate for use in children, but doctors often recommend these medications for off-label use.
When first-line therapies do not work or are not sufficiently effective, a doctor may recommend additional treatments.
In 2018, the FDA approved the use of fingolimod, an oral medication, for children aged 10 or older who had relapsing-remitting MS.
The FDA first approved this drug for use in adults with the condition in 2010. It helped increase the amount of time between relapses and reduced the activity of the disease.
Researchers are looking into additional oral medications for children and adolescents. For example, some are investigating MS-related uses of rituximab, a medication that can help treat autoimmune disorders in children.
Children and teenagers who have MS may also benefit from therapy that addresses mental health. MS is a life-long condition and symptoms tend to get worse. This can be a source of anxiety and may lead to depression.
It is important for parents and caregivers to encourage children and teens to speak about any fears and concerns and to help provide supportive therapy, when necessary.
MS is not easy to diagnose. First, the doctor will ask about symptoms, perform an exam, and consider the child’s family history.
To meet the criteria for MS, a child must have experienced at least two discrete demyelinating events. These events indicate that there has been damage in separate areas of the central nervous system at different times.
In addition, a pediatrician needs to rule out other conditions that could be causing the symptoms. They may order tests to help with this part of the diagnosis.
Anyone concerned about potential symptoms of MS in a child or teen should speak to a pediatrician.
MS symptoms are the same in children and adults. While there is no cure for MS, treatments focus on reducing or eliminating the symptoms and limiting the number of relapses that a child or adult experiences.
If a child reports any symptoms of MS, including numbness, weakness, or changes in muscular control, it is important to consult a pediatrician.
Supporting the mental health of children and teens with MS is crucial. Counseling, for example, can help.