Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological condition that causes nerve damage, resulting in disability over time. Atherosclerosis is a cardiovascular condition that occurs when plaque progressively blocks arteries.

MS can cause numbness, pain, and several motor and neurological problems. There’s no cure for MS, but treatment options for slowing its progression are available.

Atherosclerosis occurs when plaque starts to build in the arteries after they’ve sustained damage. Atherosclerosis can occur in anyone. However, certain lifestyle habits, such as smoking and low physical activity, can increase the risk of developing it.

This article explains the difference between atherosclerosis and MS, their symptoms, their similarities and differences, and how doctors diagnose and treat them.

MS is an autoimmune neurological condition. In MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks the protective coating of nerves, called the myelin sheath. The immune system damages the nervous system, causing muscle weakness and other motor and neurological issues.

MS typically occurs in people 20–40 years old. It affects everyone differently. While some people may have mild to no symptoms, MS can progress rapidly, causing severe disability, in other people.

Atherosclerosis is a common condition that occurs when plaque sticks to the internal lining of arteries. Plaque builds over time, narrowing the arteries and making it more difficult for blood to circulate in the body. This reduces the supply of oxygen-rich blood to organs and tissues.

Health conditions connected to atherosclerosis are the leading cause of death in the United States. About 50% of people ages 45–84 have this condition without knowing it, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Atherosclerosis can occur in any artery of the body. It can cause severe and potentially life threatening complications, including stroke and heart attack.

Is there a link between the two?

A 2022 study found some links between the onset of atherosclerosis in people with MS. It found people with MS have risk factors for atherosclerosis, such as dyslipidemia and hypertension.

However, having risk factors does not mean people will develop a condition.

A 2020 study that followed more than 84,000 people over 10 years found that people with MS were 50% more likely to die from heart disease than people without MS.

Learn more about MS and atherosclerosis.

The symptoms, causes, treatments, and diagnostic tests of these conditions are as follows:

Multiple sclerosisAtherosclerosis
Symptoms• blurry or double vision
• partial vision loss
• muscle weakness and tremors
• coordination problems
• loss of bladder or bowel control
• sexual dysfunction
• dizziness
• fatigue
• memory problems
• nausea or diarrhea
• weight loss
• muscle aches and cramping
• chest pain or angina
• heart palpitation
• cold sweats
• dizziness
• extreme fatigue
• shortness of breath
• weakness
Treatment• medications, such as steroids
• disease-modifying therapies
• ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers
• anti-clotting medications
• calcium channel blockers
• lifestyle strategies
Causes • genetics
• infectious factors
• environmental factors
• damage and inflammation to the artery
• buildup of plaque
• lifestyle habits, such as smoking and low physical activity
Diagnosis • neurological exams and tests
• lumbar puncture
• blood tests
• MRI scan
• blood tests
• electrocardiogram
• heart imaging tests
• heart CT scan

MS and atherosclerosis both cause the hardening of tissues in the body.

MS can cause muscle stiffness and nerve damage, including brain and spinal cord injuries.

Atherosclerosis causes the hardening of blood vessels and the formation of plaque blockages that may completely or partially obstruct blood flow. Atherosclerosis can occur in any artery of the body.

Learn more about different types of multiple sclerosis.

MS is a neurodegenerative condition that mainly affects the nerves and the central nervous system. It can cause disability, and its symptoms can progress over time.

However, MS is rarely life threatening. People with MS typically have the same life expectancy as people without MS.

Atherosclerosis is a condition that occurs when plaque forms in damaged arteries, obstructing blood flow. It can cause life threatening complications, such as heart attack and stroke.

Atherosclerosis can cause disability and reduce life expectancy.

People with MS may experience symptoms such as:

  • pain, numbness, and tingling in the face, arms, legs, or trunk
  • vision problems, such as blurred vision
  • muscle weakness
  • muscle stiffness
  • involuntary muscle spasms
  • dizziness
  • trouble keeping balance when walking
  • difficulties controlling the bladder
  • mental and physical fatigue
  • mood changes and difficulties managing emotions
  • anxiety and depression

Learn more about symptoms and signs of MS.

The symptoms of atherosclerosis can vary depending on which arteries are affected. Symptoms may include:

The cause of MS is currently unknown. MS occurs when the immune system erroneously attacks the myelin, a substance that forms the layer that protects the nerves, called the myelin sheath. It causes nerve inflammation and can lead to nerve damage.

Possible causes include:

  • genetics
  • infectious factors
  • environmental factors

Learn more about the causes of MS.

Atherosclerosis can occur when an underlying condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, or a lifestyle habit, such as smoking, causes damage and inflammation to the artery. The damage allows inflammatory cells to attract cholesterol and cell waste into damaged spots.

This can cause a buildup of plaque that can cause serious cardiovascular health complications over time.

Doctors use a combination of tests to diagnose MS, including:

  • MRI scans: These imaging scans check the health of the brain and spinal cord.
  • Evoked potential tests: This test can help doctors determine how the nervous system responds to external stimuli by sending painless electric signals using electrodes placed on the skin.
  • Lumbar puncture: This exam collects a sample of spinal fluid to test it for the presence of proteins and inflammatory cells linked to MS.

To diagnose atherosclerosis, doctors typically perform a series of exams, such as:

  • blood tests to check cholesterol levels
  • electrocardiogram to check the heart’s electrical activity
  • heart imaging tests to inspect the general health conditions of the heart
  • a stress test to check how the heart responds to physical stress and exercise
  • a heart CT scan, called a coronary calcium scan, to evaluate the presence of calcifications or buildup of calcium in the arteries
  • ankle-brachial index (ABI) tests to compare the blood pressures in the ankle and arm and diagnose peripheral artery disease

There is no cure for MS. However, several treatments can help slow its progression.

Disease-modifying therapies are one well-known treatment for MS. These medications can help reduce the frequency of MS relapses, suppress the activity of the immune system, and prevent further nerve damage.

Learn more about treatment for MS.

It is not possible to reverse the damage that occurs from atherosclerosis. However, a combination of lifestyle strategies and medications can help prevent its progression and reduce the risk of health complications.

Medications for atherosclerosis may include:

The lifestyle strategies a person with atherosclerosis may consider onboarding may include:

MS is rarely life threatening. It does not reduce life expectancy. However, certain complications of MS can cause disabilities and health challenges over time. They may affect the life quality of a person with MS.

A person cannot reverse atherosclerosis. It can cause serious health complications. Atherosclerosis can reduce a person’s life expectancy by several years. It requires medical management alongside lifestyle strategies.

MS is a neurological condition that affects the central nervous system, causing nerve damage and motor problems. People with MS can experience severe fatigue and difficulties performing daily activities. It can cause disability over time.

Atherosclerosis is a condition that involves the formation of plaque buildup in the arteries. Atherosclerosis can induce a partial or complete blockage of arteries. This can cause serious health complications, which can sometimes be life threatening, such as stroke and heart attack.