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Multiple Sclerosis

What is Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disabling disease of the central nervous system (CNS) that interrupts the path of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. In MS, the immune system attacks and damages the fatty substance (myelin) that surrounds and insulates nerve fibers and the nerve fibers themselves creating interference with the communication of nerve signals between the brain and spinal cord and other parts of the body. The damaged myelin forms scar tissue (sclerosis).

The cause of MS is unknown and it is not contagious or directly inherited. Scientists believe gender, genetics, age, geography and ethnic background contribute to the distribution of the disease and may even hold the key to what causes the disease. MS can occur at any age; however, most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50.

Experts think the disease is triggered in a genetically susceptible individual by a combination of one or more environmental factors. People with MS typically experience one of four disease courses which can range in severity. The progress, severity and symptoms of MS vary and cannot be predicted.

More than 20,000 individuals in Illinois are living with MS, creating substantial impacts on their family, friends and loved ones. MS is thought to affect more than 2.3 million people worldwide.

What are the symptoms of MS?

Because MS causes damage in the CNS, nearly any function can be adversely affected. However, the most common symptoms are overwhelming fatigue, visual disturbances, altered sensation and difficulties with mobility.

Symptoms of MS are unpredictable, and vary in type and severity from one person to another and in the same person over time. Symptoms may disappear or remit completely or they may persist and may worsen over time.

What causes the symptoms?

MS symptoms occur when the immune-system produces inflammation within the CNS. The damage caused by inflammation can produce symptoms that resolve over weeks to months or symptoms that are permanent.

Who is at risk?

Anyone may develop MS but there are some patterns. More than two to three times as many women as men develop MS and this gender difference has been increasing over the past 50 years. Studies suggest that genetic risk factors increase the risk of developing MS, but there is no evidence that MS is directly inherited. Environmental factors, such as low Vitamin D and cigarette smoking have also been shown to increase the risk of MS. MS occurs in most ethnic groups, including African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics/Latinos, but is most common in Caucasians of northern European ancestry.

More people are being diagnosed with MS today than in the past, most likely due to increased awareness of the disease, enhanced access to care and improved diagnostics. There is no evidence the rate of MS is increasing.

Can MS be cured?

Not yet. There are now 13 FDA-approved medications that have been shown to "modify" the course of MS by reducing the number of relapses and delaying progression of disability to some degree. In addition, many therapeutic and technological advances are helping people manage symptoms. Advances in treating and understanding MS are made every year, and progress in research to find a cure is very encouraging.

Research in the body’s immune system, patterns of disease, infectious agents and genetics are being conducted to seek a cause. Identifying and understanding causes of MS will expedite the process of finding more effective ways to treat, and ultimately cure, MS, or prevent it from occurring.

What medications and treatments are available?

The National MS Society recommends that a person consider treatment with one of the FDA-approved "disease-modifying" drugs as soon as possible following a definite diagnosis of MS with active or relapsing disease. These medications help to reduce inflammation in the CNS, reduce the frequency and severity of MS attacks and the numbers of lesions in the CNS, and may slow the progression of disability.

In addition to the medications that address the disease process, there are many medications and other strategies to manage MS symptoms such as spasticity, pain, bladder problems, fatigue, sexual dysfunction, weakness, and cognitive problems. People should consult a knowledgeable MS care provider to develop a comprehensive plan to manage their MS.

Where can I find more information and support?

The National MS Society offers an extensive variety of programs, services, resources and connection opportunities for people living with and affected by MS, including family members, caregivers and other members of their support systems. These resources can be accessed in person in your community, online, by phone and by mail.

Illinois MS Program

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) is collaborating with community partners to improve the health of people at risk for, or affected by, MS. Explore the resources on this website to learn more about MS and the program.

MS Task Force

In 2013, Public Act 098-0530 established a MS Task Force (MSTF), within the IDPH. The Act can be found at: The MSTF is charged with developing a report of recommendations, through collaboration between state agencies, the medical community and the National MS Society, to address the unmet needs of individuals living with MS. The MSTF is comprised of 16 appointed members, including designees of state agencies, neurologists, registered nurses with MS certification, a designee of the National MS Society, representatives of service or support providers, individuals living with MS and public members. The final report was submitted to the General Assembly on December 30, 2015.

MS Research Lottery

Since 2007, instant lottery tickets have raised more than $7 million for MS research in Illinois and to raise awareness about the disease. Proceeds fund competitive research grants by Illinois researchers, the first of which were awarded in 2009. More information can be found at:

Grants considered for funding must propose to research repair of damage caused by acquired demyelinating disease of the central nervous system; and develop and advance the understanding, techniques and modalities effective for maintaining function, mobility and strength through preventive physical therapy or other treatments and restoration of function. Research recipients are selected through a peer-review process established by the IDPH and the National MS Society.

Source: Information from the National MS Society website