It is one of the most common diseases of the central nervous system, but just what are the symptoms of multiple sclerosis?

MS affects over 2 500 000 people around the world, but their symptoms aren’t often the same.

“The symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary considerably between different patients,” explains Dr Natanya Fourie, a neurologist in private practice in Pretoria.

“MS can lead to symptoms including numbness, pain, muscle stiffness, balance fallout, visual loss, as well as problems with memory, mood and chronic fatigue. These symptoms are clearly not very specific to MS, so having these symptoms justifies referral to a neurologist, but does not necessarily mean that one has MS.”

Since the symptoms vary considerably, MS has been nicknamed the ‘snowflake disease,’ but just what is this disease?

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What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic central nervous system condition characterised by inflammation, demyelination and degenerative changes that interrupt the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.

MS can become disabling, leading to paralysis and blindness.

Who is affected?

“The number of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) in South Africa has not been determined, but Multiple Sclerosis South Africa estimates that around 5 000 South Africans have MS,” says Dr Nicola Lister, Chief Scientific Officer & Medical Director, Novartis Southern Africa.

Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with at least two to three times more women than men being diagnosed with the disease.

How is MS treated?

“Luckily there are treatment options to control MS and, in South Africa, we have five commonly-used classes of medication, called disease-modifying drugs, registered to treat MS,” says Dr Lister.

Disease-modifying treatments (DMTs) treat the underlying cause of the disease and can prevent or limit the immune system from attacking the nerves in the brain. The aim of treatment is to prevent disease progression and thereby protect physical and cognitive abilities.

It should be noted though, that these DMTs don’t always fully control the attacks from happening. Some people live many years on one type of medication without ever progressing, some with more aggressive disease progress despite treatment.

How MS progresses

“Progression in MS is frequently measured by a scale that measures a person’s ambulation, called the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS),” says Dr Lister, “If MS progresses, the person with MS may increase on the EDSS scale and reach a point where they may require aids to walk.”

Dr Lister says that many years ago when MS was not understood as well as it is now, doctors would stop treatment when people with MS progressed past a certain point on the EDSS. It was believed that the treatment would no longer be effective.

Two to three times more women than men are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis

“Today, we understand that upper limb function and cognition are very important factors to consider. Even if a person with MS loses their ability to walk in some cases of severe disease, we can still protect their ability to work with hands and to think clearly,” says Dr Lister.

Improved treatment options improve quality of life

“Although there is still much that we do not fully understand about the pathophysiology of MS, the last 20 years have provided a significant number of treatment options that improve prognosis and quality of life for people with MS. Furthermore, the growing body of evidence highlights the importance of early and ongoing access to disease-modifying therapies,” says Dr Lister.

If you suspect that you could have MS, consult a qualified neurologist.

For further support and information, consult Multiple Sclerosis South Africa at

Sources and further reading:

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.