The course of MS is unpredictable. Some people may feel and seem healthy for many years following diagnosis, while others may be severely debilitated very quickly. Most people fit somewhere between these two extremes.

Although every individual will experience a different combination of MS symptoms, there are a number of distinct patterns relating to the course of the disease:

Relapsing-remitting MS

In this form of MS there are unpredictable exacerbations or attacks (called relapses) during which new symptoms appear or existing symptoms become more severe. Relapses can last for varying periods (days or months) and there is partial or total recovery (remission). The disease may then be inactive for months or years.

About 85 per cent of people with MS are initially diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS.

Primary progressive MS

About 10 per cent of people with MS are diagnosed with this form of MS, which is characterised by a lack of distinct attacks, but with slow onset and steadily worsening symptoms. There is a build-up of disability which may level off at some point or continue over months and years.

Secondary progressive MS

For most people who initially have relapsing-remitting MS, there is the development of progressive disability later in the course of the disease. This often occurs with superimposed relapses and no definite periods of remission.

Progressive relapsing MS

This is the least common subtype (about 5 per cent). Individuals show a steady neurologic decline with a clear superimposition of attacks. There may or may not be some form of recovery following these relapses, but the disease continues to progress without remissions.

International Progressive MS Alliance

The International Progressive MS Alliance is a growing global initiative to end progressive MS. The Alliance began by bringing together the world’s leading experts in multiple sclerosis to identify the critical knowledge and treatment gaps where progress must be made to achieve breakthroughs necessary to change the world for people with progressive MS. The Alliance now has 15 member organisations who, between them, have many years’ experience of MS research and have funded significant developments in research, disease-modifying therapies and symptom treatments.

Pediatric (childhood) MS

Though MS in children is rare, an increasing number of children across the world are being diagnosed with MS. Neurologists are finding that MS in children has different characteristics and to date, no therapies have been tested for being safe or effective for the treatment of children with MS.

The International Pediatric MS Study Group is helping to improve this knowledge.

The International Pediatric Multiple Sclerosis Study Group

The International Pediatric Multiple Sclerosis Study Group (IPMSSG) is a network of adult and pediatric neurologists, basic scientists, clinicians, representatives of MS organisations and others, which received organisational and financial support from MSIF and several of its members. Their vision is to optimise worldwide healthcare, education and research in pediatric MS and other acquired inflammatory demyelinating disorders of the central nervous system.

Course of MS

It is impossible to predict the course of MS accurately for any individual, but the first five years give some indication of how the disease will continue for that person. This is based upon the course of the disease over that period and the disease type (relapsing-remitting or progressive). The level of disability reached at endpoints such as five and ten years is thought to be a reliable predictor of the future course of the disease.

Age at onset and gender may also be indicators of the long-term course of the disease. Some research has indicated that younger age at onset (under 16 years of age) implies a more favourable prognosis, but this must be tempered by the knowledge that, for a young adult, living with MS for 20 or 30 years may result in substantial disability even if the progress towards disability is slow.

Other research has indicated that late onset (over 55 years of age), particularly in males, may indicate a progressive course of the disease.

A Greek woman with MS in a motorised scooter

Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011. Finding an effective MS therapy has been a particular challenge for Vasiliki Garopoulou; every medication she tried has caused intolerable side effects. On average, she has a relapse once per month, many of which land her in hospital for cortisone treatment. Credit: Maximiliano Braun. Published on this website by kind permission of the European Multiple Sclerosis Platform.

Woman in wheelchair in hospital corridor in China

"It doesn’t matter that I am in a wheelchair. Life goes on. I have just changed the way I get around." Wu Yanxiao, 28, from Beijing, has had MS for 8 years. Reproduced with the kind permission of Li YouHao,© 2014 Li

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