Understanding MS

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic or long-lasting disease that affects the central nervous system, which are the nerves that process information and send signals throughout your brain and spinal cord. When someone has MS, their immune system, which normally protects the body from disease, attacks the protective coating around the body’s own nerve fibers. The nerves themselves are also damaged in the process. This damage interrupts the flow of information through the nervous system, resulting in symptoms throughout the body.

MS affects people of all ages, but symptoms often begin between the ages of 20 and 40. MS symptoms can range from mild to very severe. Some common symptoms may include:


  • Fatigue
  • Pain, numbness, tingling or itchy feelings around your body
  • Muscle weakness and lack of coordination
  • Dizziness or trouble with balance
  • Trouble walking
  • Vision problems, such as blurry or double vision
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Bladder and bowel problems
  • Depression and emotional changes
  • Sexual problems


The symptoms can get worse over time or may vary between more and less severe symptoms. There is no cure for MS, but there are treatments that help reduce existing symptoms, prevent new attacks (relapses) and slow the pace of disability.


The symptoms of MS tend to be wide ranging and are often associated with other disorders. As a result, many people are not diagnosed with it right away.

People with MS-like symptoms are often diagnosed by a neurologist, a type of doctor who specializes in treating the brain and nervous system. Different tests are used to diagnose MS, including: 

  • Blood tests to rule out other diseases with similar symptoms
  • Physical tests of balance, muscle coordination, vision, and other functions
  • An MRI imaging test to look for signs of lesions (damaged tissue) on the brain
  • An analysis of the fluid that cushions your brain and spinal cord
  • Tests to measure electrical activity in your nervous system

 For information on MS treatments, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Treating MS section.

MS can be found in people of all different races and ethnicities. Several famous African-Americans have been diagnosed with MS, including Montel Williams, Barbara Jordan, Richard Pryor, and Lena Horne.


MS may occur in some racial and ethnic groups more often than others. Recent studies of people in the U.S. military and members of the Kaiser Permanente health system indicate that the risk of developing MS may be highest in African Americans. Studies have also shown that MS may also be more aggressive and cause more disability at a faster pace in African Americans. Other studies have shown that people from racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, may use or have access to fewer health services. This can result in getting diagnosed later, missing out on treatments that could be helpful, and having worse health.


While much is already known about MS, there are still many questions that need to be answered. These include:

  • Why does MS affect some people and not others, and why is the risk of MS higher in African-Americans?
  • Why is it more severe in some people compared to others?
  • Which MS treatments are best for which people?
  • What role does diet and exercise play in MS?


There are many research studies underway to answer these and other questions. People from all races and ethnicities are needed to participate in these studies. That way everyone can benefit from the answers that are found and the new treatments that are developed.