Learn about multiple sclerosis symptoms and treatments

March 15, 2023 Providence Health Team


In this article:

  • March 13-19 is MS Awareness Week, and Providence wants to give you the basic facts about multiple sclerosis and what it’s like to live with the disease.

  • Multiple sclerosis affects nearly 1 million Americans.

  • The Providence Multiple Sclerosis Center in Portland, Oregon, offers treatments and therapies that can be life-changing for people with MS.

“You have multiple sclerosis.” These four words can change a person’s life forever. The disease, for which there is no cure, affects nearly 1 million people in the United States. It garners renewed attention when celebrities — such as actors Christina Applegate and Selma Blair — announce they have the disease, and it has inspired several well-known fundraisers and events, such as the National MS Society’s Walk MS.

But how, exactly, does multiple sclerosis (commonly referred to as MS) affect a person? Who gets it, and what can they do to improve their life? This week is MS Awareness Week, and this MS Awareness Month the National MS Society has chosen the theme “Whatever It Takes” — meaning that people with MS and within the MS community will do whatever it takes to move their lives forward.

At Providence we, too, do whatever it takes to help our patients live their best lives by providing quality care. Here, we offer some information about the disease itself, and how we’re making a difference.

What is MS?

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, which means it is caused by the immune system’s abnormal response. In this case, the immune system attacks the central nervous system, damaging the myelin, which is a fatty substance that surrounds and protects the nerves. Without an adequate amount of myelin, the central nervous system is unable to send certain messages to the body, which leads to potentially devastating symptoms. The damage causes the myelin to develop scar tissue, which is how the disease got its name — multiple areas of scarring, or multiple sclerosis.

Experts don’t know exactly what causes MS. But research has shown that several factors may play a role in whether a person gets MS:

  • Gene mutations – People who have family members with MS are at an increased risk of developing the disease, but there is not a specific gene mutation that researchers have identified.
  • Environment – Living farther from the equator can increase a person’s risk for MS. This could be because those regions receive less sun and people have lower levels of vitamin D, which is a risk factor for MS.
  • Exposure to certain infections – Some studies have shown that a person who becomes infected with the Epstein-Barr virus can eventually develop MS.
  • Immune system function – Scientists have been working to determine why some people’s immune system attacks healthy cells.

What happens to a person with MS?

Early in the disease process, it may be difficult to differentiate MS from other diseases or determine a diagnosis of MS, simply because some of the symptoms are common to many different conditions. That said, some of the most common signs of MS include:

  • Fatigue
  • Numbness and tingling, especially in the arms and legs
  • Vision problems
  • Muscle spasms and stiffness
  • Walking difficulties
  • Speech and swallowing difficulties
  • Bowel problems

In the long term, people with MS may have severe problems with walking, and could require the use of a cane or wheelchair. They also could develop memory problems, sexual difficulties and the loss of bowel or bladder control.

However, MS is rarely fatal. Most people with MS can expect to have the same lifespan as someone without the disease.

Treatment options

Although there is no cure for MS, doctors can still treat attacks and symptoms. Specifically, they can prescribe medications that reduce nerve inflammation. There are also several disease- modifying therapies for some types of MS, including injectable, oral and infused medications. Some of these medications can cause significant side effects, so patients need to work with their doctor to find the option that’s best for them.

Therapy can also provide a lot of relief for MS patients. A physical therapist can teach patients stretching and strengthening exercises, and an occupational therapist can show them how to use devices to make it easier to perform daily tasks. Mobility can often be a big barrier for MS patients, and physical and occupational therapy can make it easier to perform daily functions.

The Providence Multiple Sclerosis Center in Portland, Oregon, cares for more MS patients than any other facility in Oregon. Our team includes neurologists, nurses, rehab experts and other providers who care for the whole person. We offer:

  • Access to a multitude of clinical trials and MS research that offer new hope to people living with MS
  • Patient education and wellness programs, including MS Yoga classes
  • A monthly support group for patients and families
  • A newsletter that provides timely information for those with MS

While MS can be a devastating disease, there is hope. MS patients will do whatever it takes to live their best life, and at Providence, we want to support you every step of the way.


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Related resources

A keto diet could benefit people with MS

Clinical trials for MS patients

Learning to walk again

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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