What Is Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?

MS is an immune-mediated disease affecting the brain and spinal cord, also called the central nervous system (CNS). 

MS can appear at any age but most commonly manifests between the ages of 20 and 40. It affects women two to three times as often as men. Almost one million people in the United States have MS, making it one of the most common causes of neurological disability among young adults in North America. 

MS Symptoms & Causes

Because almost any part of the central nervous system can be affected, the symptoms of MS vary, depending on the location that is involved. About half of all people with MS first have an isolated neurological problem, and an almost equal number have more than one symptom signaling the condition.

The most common symptoms of MS are:

  • Loss of vision (optic neuritis)
  • Double vision
  • Vertigo
  • Weakness in one or more limbs
  • Facial weakness
  • Facial pain (trigeminal neuralgia)
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Muscle stiffness (spasticity)
  • Gait abnormalities and imbalance
  • Cognitive problems
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Bowel and bladder problems
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Pain

An exacerbation of MS symptoms, known as a relapse, can last for days or weeks and then resolve, partially or fully. Over time, symptoms may persist or steadily worsen. 

Diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Confirming an MS diagnosis can be straightforward, but that is not always the case. Symptoms of MS may also occur in other disorders. Objective evidence of central nervous system inflammation and demyelination, damage to the covering that protects nerve fibers, is usually obtained by thorough medical history, neurologic examination and supplementary studies. Other diagnoses that may mimic MS must be ruled out.

Laboratory, imaging, and electrophysiological studies that may be performed to diagnose and appropriately manage MS include the following:

  • Blood tests
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
  • MRI of the brain and spinal cord
  • Optical coherence tomography (OCT)
  • Visual field testing
  • Electrical conduction studies (evoked potentials)

Other studies, such as, neuropsychological testing, bladder ultrasound, urodynamic studies, etc. may be warranted depending on the nature of the problems.

MS Treatment at Penn

Although MS cannot be cured, it can be managed. With today’s treatments, it’s possible to:

  • Limit and even stop new injuries to the central nervous system
  • Treat acute attacks
  • Stop, control, and prevent symptoms
  • Aid in recovery from attacks

Medication for Multiple Sclerosis

As an academic medical center on the cutting edge of research, Penn Medicine plays an integral role in developing the latest treatments for neuroinflammatory disorders such as MS. You will have access to the full scope of medication options available, a dedicated MS pharmacist, and an onsite outpatient infusion clinic for intravenous medical administration, if needed. In addition, some patients may be eligible for treatments being evaluated in clinical trials. 

Learn more about our research and current clinical trials.

Disease Modifying Treatments (DMTs)

The goal of DMTs is to prevent relapses and slow the progressive worsening of disability. Commonly used DMTs include:

  • Injectables, such as interferon beta and glatiramer acetate
  • Oral therapies
  • Monoclonal antibody treatments that are infused or given by injection

Treatment for Acute Relapses

The goal of acute relapse treatment is mainly to promote more rapid recovery from a new attack.

Treatment for relapses may include: 

  • Corticosteroids
  • Plasmapheresis or IV immunoglobulins (IVIG)

Symptomatic Treatments

The goal of symptomatic treatments for MS is to eliminate or manage the symptoms that are bothering you. Treatments include:

  • Muscle relaxants
  • Potassium channel blockers
  • Botox injections
  • Medications that relieve muscle spasms, urinary problems, sexual dysfunction, fatigue, or depression

The Penn MS and Related Disorders Center also offers a number of patient support programs and resources, which play a crucial role in the management of MS. 

Penn Programs & Services for Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Multiple Sclerosis

We provide evaluation, diagnosis and treatment for multiple sclerosis and associated disorders through our comprehensive multiple sclerosis program.

Neuro-Orthopaedics Program

Penn Neuro-Orthopedics offers the latest advances in diagnosis and treatment for conditions like brain injury and stroke.


Penn’s neurorehabilitation program provides inpatient and outpatient services that restore patients to a maximum level of cognitive and physical function.

MS patient

Rachael's Story

Multiple Sclerosis

For three years, Rachael suffered from symptoms that she could not explain including blurry vision, sensory disturbance, numbness on one side of her body, and fatigue. Multiple doctors told her she was fine. She was starting to lose hope, until she was referred to the Penn MS Center. Rachael has MS, but now she also has a plan and team at Penn.

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