MS is the most common acquired chronic neurological disease affecting young adults, often diagnosed between the ages of 20 to 40 and, in Australia, affects three times more women than men. As yet, there is no cure.
There is no known single cause of MS, but many genetic and environmental factors have been shown to contribute to its development.
In MS, the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks and damages the fatty material – called myelin – around the nerves. Myelin is important for protecting and insulating nerves so that the electrical messages that the brain sends to the rest of the body, travel quickly and efficiently.
As the myelin breaks down during a MS attack – a process called demyelination – patches of nerves become exposed and then scarred, which render the nerves unable to communicate messages properly and at risk of subsequent degeneration. This means that the brain cannot talk to other parts of the body, resulting in a range of symptoms that can include a loss of motor function (e.g. walking and hand and arm function, loss of sensation, pain, vision changes and changes to thinking and memory).
What are the different types of MS?
Relapsing remitting MS is the most common form of MS; it is characterised by flare-ups of the neurological symptoms of MS, also known as relapses or attacks, followed by periods of recovery or remission.
Secondary progressive MS (SPMS) is a secondary phase of relapsing remitting MS that can develop years, to decades following the initial onset of relapsing symptoms. SPMS is characterised by a progressive worsening of symptoms (accumulation of disability) over time, with no obvious signs of remission.
Primary progressive MS (PPMS) is diagnosed in approximately 10-15% of people with MS. PPMS is characterised by a progressive worsening of symptoms and disability right from the beginning, without periods of recovery or remission.
What are the most common symptoms of MS?
The symptoms of MS are extremely variable for all individuals and can also change over time. Not everyone with MS will experience these symptoms, some people may experience other types of symptoms, but these are the types of things that can typically occur in MS.
The MS treatment landscape
The MS landscape has been comprehensively transformed over the last few years by progress in research and therapeutics. There are now 14 disease modifying therapies available in Australia for people with MS. Over the last 15 years, people with MS are being diagnosed earlier, and the long term outcomes for people with MS have improved significantly, with certain disability milestones being reached almost 8 years later on average.
For progressive MS, however, there are limited treatment options. To directly address this, MS Research Australia has joined with many global MS research organisations to establish the International Progressive MS Alliance. The Alliance is focused on understanding progressive MS and accelerating the discovery of solutions to end progressive MS. The International Progressive MS Alliance is coordinated by a group of five managing member organisations (including MS Research Australia) together with the MS International Federation.