Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease of the central nervous system (CNS) — the brain and spinal cord. It affects multiple areas of the body.

People with MS gradually lose the coating called myelin on the neurons throughout their CNS. This affects the ability of nerves to send signals.

MS can affect virtually every system of the body. Each person’s experience with MS is different.

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MS affects the central nervous system, which means that many of the earliest and most pronounced effects are neurological.

Some symptoms include:

  • intense fatigue
  • brain fog, attention issues, and trouble concentrating
  • trouble with coordination
  • tingling, electrical sensations, or other unusual feelings in various parts of the body
  • unexplained pain
  • seizures (in advanced MS)
  • breathing problems due to damage to the nervous system
  • hearing loss
  • spasticity, when a person has difficulty controlling their movements
  • mood changes, such as depression and anxiety
  • changes in vision, such as trouble seeing, blurred vision, double vision, or seeing unusual images, such as lights
  • headaches, especially migraines that may cause light sensitivity or intense pain
  • speech difficulties, such as stuttering, especially later in the disease

MS does not directly affect the skeletal system. However, it can cause secondary effects, such as broken bones from falls due to low coordination, muscle weakness, or osteoporosis. People can also have low bone density because of decreased activity or the effects of treatment.

Women, especially non-Hispanic white and Asian women, have a higher risk of osteoporosis and the skeletal system effects it can cause, such as broken bones. However, African American and Hispanic women are also at risk of these effects.

Vitamin D, exercise, and certain drugs that promote bone density may help lower the risk of osteoporosis.

Most people with MS have at least one digestive symptom. These symptoms may be secondary, appearing when the body reacts to MS medication. They can also occur as primary MS symptoms.

Some common symptoms include:

As the disease progresses, a person’s risk of bowel incontinence and similar symptoms increases.

This is because the damage to neurons may make it difficult for a person to feel the urge to have a bowel movement or coordinate the muscles necessary to do so.

Although MS affects the CNS, it is actually an immune system disease. It happens when the body has an autoimmune response, which means that the immune system overreacts and begins attacking healthy cells.

MS may cause chronic inflammation, which may cause pain, damage various body structures, or increase the risk of other diseases, such as stroke or heart disease.

People do not have weakened immune systems from the disease itself. However, treatments often target the immune system to reverse the attack on neurons. These treatments can weaken the immune system, making a person more susceptible to serious infections and disease.

People with MS have a higher risk of developing circulatory system problems, such as:

Doctors do not fully understand what causes this elevated risk, since MS does not directly affect the circulatory system. Instead, certain risk factors may endanger the heart and blood vessels.

These include:

This means that circulatory system problems may be a secondary effect of MS, and that many people with the disease can lower their risk with certain lifestyle changes, such as exercising more and eating a healthy diet.

MS can directly affect the reproductive system in several ways, including:

  • damaging the nervous system, affecting a person’s sexual sensations
  • reducing the ability to orgasm or ejaculate because of neuron damage
  • creating difficulty getting an erection or becoming lubricated
  • causing pain during sex or general pain in the genitals or other erogenous zones
  • causing mood or emotional changes that may affect libido

MS does not directly damage fertility. However, sexual dysfunction may make it more difficult to get pregnant.

MS can also cause secondary sexual problems if a person develops a negative body image or feels too unhealthy to have sex. A person may also develop a condition, such as diabetes, that affects sexual function.

Doctors have not identified a cure for MS.

Instead, treatment focuses on managing symptoms and slowing the course of the disease.

Some treatment options include:

  • Disease-modifying drugs: These help control the immune system’s response, reducing the severity of its attack on the nervous system.
  • Psychotherapy and support groups: Emotional support can help a person deal with the challenges of living with MS. It may also help ease depression and anxiety.
  • Mental health medications: Mental health drugs, such as antidepressants, may ease the emotional symptoms of MS.
  • Exercise: Exercise may help reduce many secondary effects, including heart health issues, diabetes, and muscle weakness.
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy can help a person exercise more safely and target specific issues, such as pain or numbness.
  • Pain medication: Both over-the-counter and prescription pain medications may help ease MS pain.
  • Alternative and complementary remedies: People with MS can try a wide range of alternative remedies, including special anti-inflammatory diets, herbal therapies, acupuncture, massage therapy, and mindfulness approaches. These remedies are safest when a person uses them alongside standard treatment and under the supervision of a doctor.

Many people with MS can experience other symptoms not because of the disease itself, but because of their treatment or the effect the disease has on daily life.

For example, certain disease-modifying drugs may weaken the immune system. This causes a person to become immunocompromised, increasing their risk of infections. In turn, this may increase their risk of serious diseases, such as developing pneumonia from a common cold.

MS is a chronic and often progressive disease that can affect almost every part of the body.

There is no way to predict how a person’s symptoms may change with time, but aggressive treatment may slow the disease or even send it into remission.

People with MS should see a doctor, who can develop a personalized treatment plan to help relieve symptoms.