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What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive, immune-mediated disorder. That means the system designed to keep your body healthy mistakenly attacks parts of your body that are vital to everyday function. The protective coverings of nerve cells are damaged, which leads to diminished function in the brain and spinal cord.

MS is a disease with unpredictable symptoms that can vary in intensity. While some people experience fatigue and numbness, severe cases of MS can cause paralysis, vision loss, and diminished brain function.

Common early signs of multiple sclerosis (MS) include:

A doctor — most likely a neurologist — will perform several tests to diagnose MS, including:

  • neurological exam: your doctor will check for impaired nerve function
  • eye exam: a series of tests to evaluate your vision and check for eye diseases
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): a technique that uses a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to create cross-sectional images of the brain and spinal cord
  • spinal tap (also called a lumbar puncture): a test involving a long needle that’s inserted into your spine to remove a sample of fluid circulating around your brain and spinal cord

Doctors use these tests to look for damage to the central nervous system in two separate areas. They must also determine that at least one month has passed between the episodes that caused damage. These tests are also used to rule out other conditions.

MS often astounds doctors because of how much it can vary in both its severity and the ways that it affects people. Attacks can last a few weeks and then disappear. However, relapses can get progressively worse and more unpredictable, and come with different symptoms. Early detection may help prevent MS from progressing quickly.

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