Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

5-minute read

What is multiple sclerosis (MS)?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease that affects the central nervous system. It affects more than 25,000 people in Australia and is 3 times more common in women than in men.

MS means there is damage to the protective sheath (known as myelin) that surrounds the nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord. This damage causes scars, or lesions, in the nervous system, meaning that the nerves can’t send signals round the body properly.

A person's risk of developing MS is increased if they have a close relative with the condition.

The cause of MS is not known, but theories include that it is an autoimmune disease; that it is caused by genetic or environmental factors (it is more common the further away from the equator you live); and that it is caused by a virus.

There is currently no known cure for MS although there are treatment options. MS affects different people in different ways, and treatment often involves managing symptoms.

What are the different types of multiple sclerosis?

Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) — This is the most common form of MS and about 3 in every 4 people with MS begin with a relapsing-remitting stage.

With RRMS, new symptoms appear or existing symptoms worsen over a period of days, weeks or even months, followed by a partial or complete recovery, which is then followed by another relapse. For some people, these relapses get worse and the disability stays. Their health gradually declines. This is known as secondary progressive MS (see below).

Primary progressive MS (PPMS) — 1 or 2 people in every 10 with MS are diagnosed with PPMS. These people usually find that their symptoms become gradually worse, with no separate attacks.

Secondary progressive MS (SPMS) — Most people with RRMS will eventually experience SPMS. In this form, disability generally worsens slowly, independent of any relapses.

What are the symptoms of multiple sclerosis?

MS usually starts with mild symptoms that may or may not get worse over time. Symptoms depend on which part of the central nervous system is affected and how much damage has occurred.

The most common symptoms are:

  • problems with controlling the body — like muscle spasms, weakness, loss of coordination and balance
  • tiredness and sensitivity to heat (a hot day or a hot bath, or even a hot cup of tea, can make symptoms worse)
  • other nervous symptom problems — including vertigo, pins and needles, dizziness, neuralgia and problems with eyesight
  • continence problems — including bladder incontinence and constipation
  • changes in memory, in concentration, in reasoning, in emotions, or in mood (such as depression)

The symptoms of MS vary widely from person to person. They can also come and go in any one person. MS is unpredictable.

How is multiple sclerosis diagnosed?

A range of tests can be used to diagnose MS, including an MRI to detect lesions in the central nervous system, a physical examination to check reflexes and responses, blood tests, lumbar punctures and other types of tests to measure nerve activity.

Sometimes it can take years to reach a diagnosis because there is no single test for MS. A person will be diagnosed with MS if there is evidence of lesions in different parts of the central nervous system, at different times, with no other explanation than MS.

How is multiple sclerosis treated?

Medicines can delay the progression of MS and reduce the risk of relapses. These are called ‘disease modifying therapies’. Other medicines are used to control symptoms. The best medicine for you depends on the type of MS you have. Talk to your doctor or other health professionals who care for you about the right combination of treatments for your particular situation.

Disease modifying therapies work by targeting the immune system. They slow the frequency and severity of attacks so the myelin sheaths are damaged less. These medicines are also called immunotherapies. However, these treatments do not reverse current symptoms and there can be significant side effects. These medicines are usually used for people with relapsing-remitting MS.

Steroids can reduce the severity of an MS attack by reducing inflammation and suppressing the immune system.

Medicines to suppress the immune system (called immune suppressants) are sometimes used, especially for people with progressive MS.

Controlling the symptoms of multiple sclerosis

There are medicines available that can ease muscle spasms, pain, continence problems, tiredness, depression and other symptoms.

Regular exercise, physiotherapy and occupational therapy can also help reduce symptoms and help you be as active as possible.

A well-balanced diet low in fat and high in fibre can help. Regular exercise can strengthen muscles, improve heart health and improve mood.

Resources and support

A lot of research, including stem cell research, is focused on prevention, treatment and a cure for MS.

There is also help and support available for people with MS, and their carers.

For more information, visit the MS Australia website.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2020

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic and debilitating disease that affects the central nervous system.

Read more on Queensland Health website

Multiple Sclerosis - Brain Foundation

Multiple Sclerosis Description Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is the most common acquired chronic neurological disease affecting young adults

Read more on Brain Foundation website

Multiple sclerosis (MS) -

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic (long-term) disease that affects the central nervous system. In MS, the protective sheath (known as myelin) that surrounds the nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord becomes damaged. ... What are the symptoms of multiple sclerosis?

Read more on myDr website

Multiple sclerosis (MS) - Better Health Channel

Multiple sclerosis is not contagious, but it is progressive and unpredictable.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Multiple Sclerosis (MS): Overview | myVMC

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the brain and spinal cord thought to be caused by an autoimmune reaction. It is characterised by loss of the myelin sheath covering nerves of the central nervous system.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Neurophysiology (brain and nerve) disorders information | myVMC

Discover information about neurological conditions such as hyperhidrosis, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, and learn about neurological investigations.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

What we’re doing about neurological conditions | Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care

Neurological conditions affect the nervous system. They can have a big impact on quality of life. Find out what we’re doing to help Australians living with conditions such as epilepsy, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.

Read more on Department of Health and Aged Care website

Autoimmune diseases

Sometimes the immune system get confused and attacks normal cells in our own body. If this happens, what is known as an autoimmune disease develops.

Read more on Queensland Health website

Trigeminal Neuralgia & Other Neuralgias - Migraine & Headache Australia

Trigeminal neuralgia causes severe, electric shock-like pains in the face. Neuralgias are caused by irritated or compressed nerves.

Read more on Migraine and Headache Australia website

Somatosensory Evoked Potential (SSEP) | myVMC

A somatosensory evoked potential (SSEP) is an evoked potential caused by a physical stimulus (usually a small electric pulse). Electrodes positioned over particular areas of the body record responses of the SSEP, these are then observed as a reading on an electroencephalogram (EEG).

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.