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Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease that affects the central nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Experts believe MS is an autoimmune disease caused by the immune system attacking and damaging the nervous system. It generally progresses gradually, with alternating periods of remission, good health and disabling flare-ups.

About 400,000 Americans, mostly young adults, suffer from MS. It occurs almost twice as frequently among women than men.

Although there is no cure, most MS patients lead active lives for many years after their diagnosis and have a normal life span. But MS can be tiring and require schedule and lifestyle adjustments. A regular exercise program that includes walking, swimming, stretching or riding a stationary bike can reduce some symptoms. Our physical therapists and staff can help you learn to cope with your condition by improving your walking ability, balance, range of motion and stamina.

Causes of Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis damages the outer covering of nerve cells, called myelin, a fatty tissue that protects nerve cells in the same way that insulation protects electrical wiring in a house. Myelin helps nerve fibers conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain. Scar tissue, called sclerosis, accumulates when multiple areas of myelin are damaged. These damaged areas are known as plaques or lesions. Sometimes the nerve fiber itself is damaged and dies.

The exact cause of MS is not known, but factors such as disease, poisons and drug or alcohol abuse can damage the myelin sheath in children and adults. Heredity may contribute to the development of MS. About 5 percent of patients have a sister or brother who has the disease and about 15 percent have a close relative with MS.

When MS damages the protective myelin sheath of nerve cells, the sheath sometimes repairs itself and nerves work correctly again. In other cases, the myelin is so damaged that the underlying nerve can't be repaired and dies.

Our Approach to Multiple Sclerosis

Our mission is to help people with multiple sclerosis (MS) enjoy long and active lives. We create tailored treatment plans to relieve symptoms, reduce the severity and duration of MS attacks, and halt or slow progression of the disease. Our patients may also have opportunities to participate in research studies that are developing and testing new MS treatments. As part of our comprehensive care, we offer physical and occupational therapy to assist patients with their daily routines.

Awards & recognition

  • usnews-neurology

    Among the top hospitals in the nation

  • usnews-neurology

    Best in California and No. 2 in the nation for neurology & neurosurgery

UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.