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Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis

What is relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis?

In multiple sclerosis (MS), the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, becomes damaged. MS causes the immune system to attack the myelin, which is the insulation protecting the nerves. The nerves themselves can also be damaged. When myelin or the nerves become damaged, nerves cannot properly pass along their signals. The damaging process forms scar tissue called sclerosis, which gives the disease its name of multiple sclerosis. 


Different types of MS affect people in different ways. One type is called relapsing-remitting MS. With this type, you have flare-ups of the disease, or relapses. Between these flare-ups, you have periods of recovery, or remissions.

Most people diagnosed with MS start off with the relapsing-remitting type. In most cases, the course of the disease changes after a few decades and is then likely to become steadily worse.

MS most often develops in people in their 20s and 30s. Women are twice as likely to have MS as men.

What causes relapsing-remitting MS?

Multiple sclerosis occurs when your body’s immune system attacks the central nervous systems, damaging the myelin that protects nerve fibers. Experts believe that environmental factors trigger the disease in people whose genetics make them susceptible to MS.

Who is at risk for MS?

  • Scientist think MS may be caused by an infection that lays dormant in the body such as Epstein-Barr Virus (the virus that cause infectious mononucleosis)
  • Scientists also think there may be a genetic susceptibility for some people
  • Cigarette smoking appears to increase risk

What are the symptoms of relapsing-remitting MS?

These are often the earliest symptoms of MS:

  • Trouble seeing
  • Sensitivity to heat
  • Numbness, especially in the feet
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Depression
  • Needing to urinate urgently
  • Trouble with balance
  • Lack of coordination

Relapsing-remitting MS is marked by relapses that last at least 24 hours. During a relapse, symptoms get worse. A relapse will be followed by a remission. During a remission, symptoms partly or completely go away.

How is relapsing-remitting MS diagnosed?

Health care providers use many tests to help diagnose MS. Your health care provider will ask you questions about your symptoms. Part of your health care provider’s job will be to rule out other diseases that can cause similar symptoms.

Your health care provider will also check to see how well your vision, your sense of balance, and other functions are working. You may need an MRI scan that makes images of your brain. This may find areas of damage in your brain that suggest you may have MS.

Another possible test measures what’s called visual evoked potentials. Painless electrodes placed on your scalp measure how your brain responds to things you see.

Your health care provider may want to check your blood for other signs of disease. He or she may also order a test called a spinal tap (also called a lumbar puncture) to look at a sample of your spinal fluid.


How is relapsing-remitting MS treated?

MS is not considered curable, but different types of medicine can treat your symptoms and protect you from the disease. Certain drugs may be prescribed to treat:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Urges to urinate
  • Depression
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fatigue

Your health care provider may also suggest steroids to reduce symptoms during flare-ups. In addition, health care providers can treat relapsing-remitting MS with several drugs that affect the immune system. These may reduce relapses and help prevent new areas of damage.

What are the complications of relapsing-remitting MS?

In most cases relapsing-remitting MS is mild, although you may need to use a cane or other mobility device. In some cases, the disease is severe and causes the inability to care for yourself. Seldom does it cause death.

Living with relapsing-remitting MS

If you have relapsing-remitting MS, you can take other steps to manage your condition.

  • Try physical therapy may help relieve muscle spasms.
  • Eat a diet low in saturated fat and trans-fat. Eat more foods with healthy omega-3 fatty acids because these nutrients are believed to fight inflammation.
  • Talk with a counselor can help with depression.
  • Avoid situations that cause you to become overheated.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Get a moderate amount of exercise and enough sleep may help reduce relapses.

Key points

  • Multiple sclerosis affects young people in their 20’s and 30’s.
  • MS affects the way your muscles and eyes work and how you tolerate heat.
  • Many people with MS become depressed.
  • Although there is no cure, medications can help you manage your symptoms.
  • Adopting a healthy life-style can also help you manage your disease.
  • Avoiding overheating or other triggers can prevent flares of MS.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Petersen, Sheralee, MPAS, PA-C
Online Medical Reviewer: Sohrabi, Farrokh, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 1/14/2014
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