Multiple Sclerosis

National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc.

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It is possible that the main title of the report Multiple Sclerosis is not the name you expected. Please check the synonyms listing to find the alternate name(s) and disorder subdivision(s) covered by this report.


  • MS
  • demyelinating disease
  • disseminated sclerosis
  • primary progressive multiple sclerosis
  • relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis

Disorder Subdivisions

  • None

General Discussion

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic neuroimmunologic (both the nervous system and the immunological system are involved) disorder of the central nervous system involving the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. By means of a mechanism not clearly understood, the protective fatty, insulating substance called myelin sheath that covers the nerve is destroyed. The inflammatory attacks that produce the characteristic scarring (plaques or patches) of the myelin sheath occurs randomly, vary in intensity, and at multiple sites. The course of the disease may advance, relapse, remit, or stabilize. The randomness of the location of plaques or patches affects the nerve's ability to transmit information (neurotransmission) and causes a wide range of neurological symptoms, which may vary from person to person.

Recently it has been learned that the nerve fibers themselves, (axons), in addition to the myelin sheaths, are affected by the neuroimmunologic attacks. Damage to the nerve cells may be irreversible. As a result, clinicians recommend early intervention with one of the disease-modifying agents (see below).


The symptoms of multiple sclerosis may vary greatly. Some people may have visual impairment (including blind spots), double vision (diplopia), or involuntary rhythmic movements of the eyes (nystagmus). People with multiple sclerosis may also experience impairment of speech, numbness or tingling sensation in the limbs and difficulty walking. Dysfunction of the bladder and bowel may also be present. Multiple sclerosis is rarely fatal; the average life expectancy is 93 percent of that of the general population. In some cases however, constraints on mobility make it necessary to use a cane, or crutches, or other aids. In a small number of cases, the disease accelerates and may result in life-threatening complications.

In order to illustrate by how much symptoms of MS may vary, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) cites a study of 697 persons with MS who experienced the following symptoms in addition to pain, depression and other emotional changes:


Ambulation problems---------87%

Bowel/Bladder problems----65%

Visual Disturbances-----------58%

Cognitive problems------------44%


Difficulty moving arms---------41%


The exact cause of multiple sclerosis is not known. Nevertheless, most clinical investigators agree that MS may be the result of an abnormal autoimmune response to some infection or environmental trigger in a genetically susceptible person. Immunologic, genetic, and environmental factors are thought to play some role in causing the disorder.

Many researchers suggest that the disorder may represent an abnormal immune reaction directed against the body's own tissues (autoimmune disorder). In autoimmune disorders, the body's natural defenses (e.g., antibodies, lymphocytes) against substances that are perceived as foreign (antigens) inappropriately begin to attack healthy tissues, for unknown reasons. According to many researchers, the autoimmune process may be triggered by exposure to particular environmental agents (e.g., certain bacteria or viruses) in individuals with a genetic susceptibility for MS. Research is concentrating on immune therapies designed to moderate the autoimmune attack without harming normal immune cells.

Some researchers believe that one or more different viruses may play some role in triggering the disease process in individuals with MS. For example, laboratory studies of blood serum and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in those with the disorder have demonstrated increased number of antibodies against certain viruses, such as herpes simplex, measles, chickenpox (varicella), Epstein-Barr, influenza-C, and rubella. However, no specific virus has been isolated consistently among individuals with MS.

Other researchers suggest that a common bacterium may contribute to the development of MS. In one study, the cerebrospinal fluid from all 37 individuals with MS (relapsing-remitting or progressive MS) showed the presence of the bacterium that causes "walking pneumonia" (Chlamydia pneumoniae). In contrast, the study's control group (i.e., individuals with neurologic diseases other than MS) the bacterium was present in only a small number of cases and few of the control subjects had developed antibodies against the microorganism. The researchers cautioned that additional investigation is necessary to determine whether the bacterium actually triggers the disease process in certain susceptible individuals or whether those with the disease are more prone to infection with C. pneumoniae.

Evidence also suggests that individuals with MS may have a genetic susceptibility for the disorder that may be determined by the "cumulative" interaction of several genes (polygenic inheritance); in addition, there may be different genetic abnormalities or mechanisms that result in susceptibility to the disease (heterogeneity). Researchers have implicated several different genes that may be associated with MS. These include certain closely linked genes (major histocompatibility complex [MHC]) that regulate production of the major histocompatibility antigens, a group of proteins that play a role in the immune system. Researchers suggest that the presence of certain genetically determined histocompatibility antigens may play some role in predisposing individuals to MS.

Two large studies reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (February 2001) failed to show any evidence of a link between vaccination and multiple sclerosis.

Affected Populations

In 1998, 10,060 new cases of definite or possible multiple sclerosis were identified in the United States, raising the prevalence rate to 278,000. Some researchers estimate the number will rise to 315,300 by the year 2008. Twice as many females as males are affected. The disorder may appear at any age, although the diagnosis is most often made between 20 and 50 years of age.

Over the past decade it has become common for clinical researchers to classify MS into several types. These types were originally proposed to improve experimental design but are used often at this time as a guide to treatment options. MS is classified as:

Relapsing Remitting MS (RRMS)

This form of MS is characterized by clearly defined acute attacks with full recovery or modest residual deficit upon recovery. Between attacks, the severity of the disease is stable. About 70-75% of initial diagnoses of MS are later classified as RRMS.

Secondary-Progressive MS (SPMS)

SPMS usually begins as RRMS. SPMS is characterized by progressive disability at a variable rate that may be accompanied by relapses, minor remissions, and plateaus. Of the people with an initial diagnosis of RRMS, 50% or more will develop SPMS within 10 years and 90% within 25 years.

Primary Progressive MS (PPMS)

From onset, PPMS shows steady rates of progression of disability or occasional plateaus and/or minor remissions. PPMS makes up about 15% of all MS diagnoses.

Progressive-Relapsing MS (PRMS)

PRMS is the least common form of the disorder, occurring in only about 6-10% of initial diagnoses. It is characterized by steady progression of disabilities interrupted by clearly defined acute relapses and followed by total or only partial recovery.

Multiple sclerosis is more common in Caucasian Americans than in Americans of African or Asian heritage. In a few ethnic societies (Inuits, Bantus and American Indians), multiple sclerosis is rare or absent. This may hint at a genetic link to this disorder. Multiple sclerosis seems to occur more often in the moderate regions (temperate climates).

Standard Therapies

Although multiple sclerosis (MS) has no known prevention or cure, there are treatments available to manage symptoms, alter the course of the disease, and help with exacerbations (relapses or flare-ups). Standard pain medications are not effective for pain in MS, which is of two types: spasmodic and neurogenic pain. Antispasmodics are used to treat spasmodic pain and neurogenic pain is usually treated by anticonvulsants and/or antidepressants. Trigeminal neuralgia is treated with anti-convulsants such as Tegretol and Dilantin. Recurrent attacks and relapses (exacerbations) are commonly treated with corticosteroids to reduce the inflammation in the central nervous system that damages the myelin and slows or blocks the transmission of nerve impulses. These drugs do not slow down or stop the progression of this disorder. Physical therapy and exercise programs (especially aquatic or water therapy) are of value in most patients.

Disease-modifying medications help to reduce the frequency and severity of attacks, reduce the accumulation of damaged or active disease areas (lesions) in the brain and spinal cord, and appear to slow down the progression of disability. It is believed that these drugs are most effective when started early, before the disease progresses further. The following are disease-modifying drugs that have been approved by the FDA:

Betaseron (interferon beta-1b), by Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals, Inc., was approved by the FDA in 1993 for use in ambulatory MS patients to reduce the frequency of episodes of relapsing symptoms. This drug is made from one of the naturally occurring interferons, which is a type of protein. It is taken as a subcutaneous (under the skin) injection every other day. Patients and others can get additional product information by calling BETAPLUS at 800-788-1467.

Avonex (interferon beta 1-a), manufactured by Biogen, Inc., was approved by the FDA in 1996 for the treatment of relapsing-remitting forms of multiple sclerosis, and may reduce the frequency of attacks. Avonex is taken once a week as an intramuscular (into the muscle) injection. For more information about Avonex, contact 800-456-2255.

Copaxone (glatiramer acetate), manufactured by Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries, Ltd., was approved by the FDA in 1996 to reduce the number of clinical exacerbations in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. It has also been approved for patients who have MRI features that are consistent with MS and are experiencing a first clinical episode. Copaxone is a synthetic protein that simulates a protein component of myelin that insulates nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. It is delivered as a daily subcutaneous injection. To learn more about Copaxone, contact Teva's Shared Solutions Program at 800-877-8100.

Novantrone (mitoxantrone) manufactured by EMD Serono, Inc., was approved by the FDA in 2000 for reducing frequency of relapses and/or neurologic disability in patients with several forms of advanced or chronic multiple sclerosis. Novantrone had earlier been approved for treating certain types of cancer. This was the first case in which an anticancer drug was approved for treatment of MS. Novatrone belongs to a group of medicines called antineoplastics, which suppresses the activity of T-cells, B-cells, and macrophages that are believed to lead the attack on the myelin sheath. Novantrone is taken four times a year by an IV infusion in a medical facility.

Some patients treated with Novantrone may develop heart problems that can be very serious. The risk of heart disease increases with cumulative doses. For this reason, the professional labeling and patient information recommend that physicians closely monitor their patients receiving Novantrone. For more information about Novatrone, call 888-275-7376.

Rebif (interferon beta 1-a), manufactured by EMD Serono, Inc. was approved by the FDA in 2002 for MS patients with relapsing forms to reduce the frequency of exacerbations and to delay the occurrence of physical disability. Rebif is given as a subcutaneous injection three times a week. For more information about Rebif, contact MS LifeLines at 877-447-3243.

Tysabri (natalizumab), manufactured by Bioden Idec and Elan Pharmaceuticals, Inc., was

approved by the FDA in 2006 for the treatment of relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis

to lessen the amount of clinical exacerbations and progression of physical disability.

Tysabri is not meant to be used in combination with another disease modifying therapy.

Tysabri was originally approved by the FDA in 2004. However, the drug was later

withdrawn from the market after three patients developed progressive multifocal

leukoencephalopathy (PML), a serious and rare viral infection of the brain. Two of the

cases were fatal. In 2006, FDA again approved an application for resumed marketing

of Tysabri, with special restrictions. It is only available through a program known as

TOUCH. For information, call 800-456-2255.

Extavia (interferon beta-1b), by Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, was approved by the FDA in 2009 to reduce the number of flare-ups in relapsing forms of MS. It has also been approved for patients who are experiencing a first clinical episode and have MRI features that are consistent with that of multiple sclerosis. Extavia is taken every other day as a subcutaneous injection. For more information about Extavia, call Extavia Go Program at 866-398-2842.

Gilenya (fingolimod), manufactured by Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, was approved by the FDA in 2010 for adults with relapsing types of multiple sclerosis to reduce the frequency of flare-ups and delay the accumulation of physical disability. Gilenya is a sphingosine 1-phosphate receptor module. This medication is believed to act by retaining lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, in the lymph nodes. This helps reduce inflammatory damage to nerve cells by preventing lymphocytes from crossing the blood-brain barrier into the central nervous system. Gilenya is a capsule taken orally once a day. For more information about Gilenya, call 800-445-3692.

The drug Baclofen, infused through a surgically implanted pump, is manufactured by Medtronic and used for treatment of severe spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis. It is thought that infusion of the drug directly into the spinal space, rather than oral administration, may relieve spasticity and may improve muscle tone for longer periods of time. For more information, call 800-328-0810

Investigational Therapies

Information on current clinical trials is posted on the Internet at All studies receiving U.S. government funding, and some supported by private industry, are posted on this government website.

For information about clinical trials being conducted at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD, contact the NIH Patient Recruitment Office:

Tollfree: (800) 411-1222

TTY: (866) 411-1010


For information about clinical trials sponsored by private sources, contact:



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Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM). The Johns Hopkins University. Multiple Sclerosis, Susceptibility to; MS. Entry No: 126200. Last Edited February 13, 2012. Available at: Accessed February 27, 2012.

Multiple Sclerosis. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Accessed April 2, 2012.


National Multiple Sclerosis Society

1100 New York Avenue NW

Suite 660

Washington, DC 20005-3934


Tel: (202)408-1500

Fax: (202)408-0696

Tel: (800)344-4867



American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, Inc.

22100 Gratiot Ave.

Eastpointe, MI 48021

Tel: (586)776-3900

Fax: (586)776-3903

Tel: (800)598-4668



NIH/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

P.O. Box 5801

Bethesda, MD 20824

Tel: (301)496-5751

Fax: (301)402-2186

Tel: (800)352-9424

TDD: (301)468-5981


Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers

359 Main Street

Suite A

Hackensack, NJ 07601

Tel: (201)487-1050

Fax: (201)678-2290



Multiple Sclerosis Association of America

706 Haddonfield Road

Cherry Hill, NJ 08002


Tel: (856)488-4500

Fax: (856)661-9797

Tel: (800)532-7667



Multiple Sclerosis International Federation

3rd Floor Skyline House

200 Union Street

London, SE1 0LX

United Kingdom

Tel: 4402076201911

Fax: 4402076201922



Spastic Paraplegia Foundation

5305 Miramar Ln

Colleyville, TX 76034


Tel: (877)773-4483



Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation

636 Morris Turnpike, Suite 3A

Short Hills, NJ 07078


Tel: (973)379-2690

Fax: (973)912-9433

Tel: (800)225-0292



New Horizons Un-Limited, Inc.

811 East Wisconsin Ave

P.O. Box 510034

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Tel: (414)299-0124

Fax: (414)347-1977



Genetic and Rare Diseases (GARD) Information Center

PO Box 8126

Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8126

Tel: (301)251-4925

Fax: (301)251-4911

Tel: (888)205-2311

TDD: (888)205-3223


Madisons Foundation

PO Box 241956

Los Angeles, CA 90024

Tel: (310)264-0826

Fax: (310)264-4766



Autoimmune Information Network, Inc.

PO Box 4121

Brick, NJ 08723

Fax: (732)543-7285


European Society for Immunodeficiencies

1-3 rue de Chantepoulet

Geneva, CH 1211


Tel: 410229080484

Fax: 41229069140



Multiple Sclerosis Foundation

6520 North Andrews Avenue

Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33309-2130

Tel: (954)776-6805

Fax: (954)938-8708

Tel: (800)225-6495



AutoImmunity Community



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Child Neurology Foundation

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Tel: (877)263-5430



For a Complete Report

This is an abstract of a report from the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc.® (NORD). Cigna members can access the complete report by logging into For non-Cigna members, a copy of the complete report can be obtained for a small fee by visiting the NORD website. The complete report contains additional information including symptoms, causes, affected population, related disorders, standard and investigational treatments (if available), and references from medical literature. For a full-text version of this topic, see