Long-Term Effects of Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that develops when the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body, usually damaging the protective sleeves of fatty tissue (myelin sheaths) of the nerve cells in the brain.

MS is a disease that usually gets worse over time (progressive). However, with treatment and symptom management, people with the condition can have a good quality of life.

Additionally, while MS is a lifelong disease that cannot be cured, a person with the disease will not necessarily die sooner than someone who does not have the condition.

Here is an overview of the potential long-term effects of MS, including how people with the disease can cope with these effects.  

Mature Adult Female with Disability Living Life to the Fullest Photo Series - stock photo

eyecrave / Getty Images

Symptoms

The symptoms of MS can be unpredictable. No two people with the disease will experience it the same way.

It can be hard to determine which type of symptoms will occur when a person with MS has a flare-up. There are both primary and secondary symptoms of MS. Primary symptoms are caused by the damage to the myelin sheaths in nerve cells and secondary symptoms are the complications that arise from the primary symptoms.

Primary Symptoms
  • Fatigue

  • A squeezing sensation around the torso (known as an "MS hug")

  • Numbness or tingling in the face, body, or arms and legs

  • Difficulties with walking due to loss of balance and weakness

  • Muscle stiffness and spasms

  • Blurry vision, poor color vision, or pain when moving the eye

  • Dizziness and a spinning sensation (vertigo)

  • Bladder and bowel issues such as constipation or the inability to hold your bladder

  • Pain and itching in various areas of the body

  • Difficulties with processing information, poor memory and learning abilities, and the inability to problem-solve and focus

  • Anxiety, depression, irritability, or other mood changes

  • Uncontrollable laughter or crying

Secondary Symptoms
  • Repeated urinary tract infections related to bladder dysfunction

  • Loss of muscle tone caused by mobility issues

  • Weakness in the body

  • Poor posture

  • A decrease in bone density that leads to an increased risk for bone fractures

  • Having trouble breathing properly or experiencing shallow breathing

  • Pressure sores on the body from immobility

When secondary symptoms of MS arise, the main goal is to treat the primary symptoms in the hopes that the complications will also resolve.

Relapse and Remission

People with MS will have sporadic flare-ups of symptoms that tend to follow a specific pattern and include periods of relapse and periods of remission. The different patterns of MS include clinically isolated syndrome (CIS), relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), and active secondary progressive MS.

When a person with MS has a relapse, it is because inflammation in the central nervous system (CNS) is occurring. The CNS, which includes the brain and spinal cord, acts as a communication system for the brain and body.

Different areas of the CNS can be affected during a flare-up. As a result, the symptoms of each flare-up can be different.

MS relapses typically last for up to 24 hours. Once the symptoms dissipate, it is referred to as remission. These periods are nearly symptom-free or completely symptom-free. With treatment, MS relapses can be managed better and symptoms periods can become less frequent or people may go longer between relapses.

How Long Will Remission Last?

When people with MS are receiving the right kind of treatment, remission periods can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few years.

Long-Term Complications

The average age that people are diagnosed with MS is 30 years old. The progressive state of MS typically begins one to two decades after the initial diagnosis.

The life expectancy of people with MS is not severely diminished; research suggests that the average life span of a person with MS is roughly 74 years of age.

People with MS who are receiving the type of treatment that best meets their needs can expect to have a good quality of life and live nearly as long as people who do not have MS.

That said, MS does have some long-term complications, including:

  • Mobility: As the disease progresses, some people with MS will eventually develop limited or a complete lack of mobility. Roughly 33% of people with MS will lose their ability to walk. The other two-thirds will still be able to walk and move independently, but some will need mobility aids such as a cane, crutches, or a wheelchair.
  • Bladder and bowel issues: Loss of bowel or bladder control is also a long-term complication of MS. The level of disability that a person with MS experiences will determine the severity of the bladder and bowel function loss. Roughly 50% of people with MS develop both bladder and bowel problems. Of that 50%, over half eventually will become unable to hold in urine or feces at all (incontinence).
  • Sexual difficulties: Sexual arousal starts in the brain; therefore, it can be affected if certain parts of the brain are damaged by MS. Roughly 63% of people with MS experience a decline in sexual activity related to the damage caused by the disease.
  • Cognitive issues: Cognitive function describes high-level brain functions such as learning, memory, information processing, problem-solving, focus, and attention span. Over 50% of people with MS will experience a decline in cognition, which can decrease their quality of life. 

MS and Sexual Dysfunction

If you have MS and are experiencing changes in your sexual desire or function, it's important to have open, honest communication with your partner(s). You can each share your expectations and needs for sexual intimacy, and discuss how MS may affect them.

MS also has comorbidities (diseases that co-occur along with a primary condition) that can cause long-term health complications.

Common comorbidities of MS include:

While having comorbidities increases the risk of mortality in people with MS, these same diseases also increase mortality in people who do not have MS.

 

Treatment Options

There is no cure for MS, but there are treatments that help people manage their symptoms and reduce the frequency of flare-ups. Each person with MS is different, so not all treatment options work or are right for everyone.

Some medications can help slow the progression of MS. The first-line treatment for MS is a class of medications that are designed to prevent immune cells from attacking the cells in the brain and spinal cord. They are called disease-modifying therapies (DMTs).

In addition to DMTs, there are also several other kinds of treatments for MS.

Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation treatment has the goal of improving or maintaining functions that are affected by MS. Some examples of this type of treatment include physical therapy, occupational therapy, and cognitive rehabilitation.

  • Physical therapy uses exercise programs to help improve walking and mobility, as well as strength, balance, fatigue, and pain.
  • Occupational therapy provides exercises to help people with MS conserve their energy. It also teaches people certain tools that can make everyday tasks easier to accomplish.
  • Cognitive rehabilitation therapy is used to help sharpen cognitive skills such as critical thinking, memory, or concentration.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) can be used alongside more traditional treatments to help people with MS manage the disease. Examples of CAM therapies include exercise, vitamin D and other supplements, and acupuncture.

Autologous Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation (AHSCT)

Autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT treatment) involves a bone marrow transplant. It is designed to help reset a person’s immune system in an attempt to curb or eliminate the damage it is causing to the brain and spinal cord.

Stem cells are responsible for generating all other specialized cells in the body.

During the procedure, stem cells are taken from the patient’s body. Following the extraction, the patient undergoes chemotherapy to help suppress their immune system.

Next, the stem cells are put back into the patient's body. It is hoped that the immune system will rebuild itself correctly and no longer attack the brain and spinal cord.

Summary

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, progressive, autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy cells in the brain and spinal cord. The symptoms of MS are related to which parts of the body have been affected but can include neurological problems, vision changes, and bowel and bladder dysfunction.

MS can follow a pattern where it gets worse over time (progressive), or it may get worse for a while and then get better for a while (relapsing-remitting).

The condition is lifelong and there is no cure, but there are different treatments for MS including medication and rehabilitation therapy. Some therapies can even help slow the progression of the disease, while others are focused on helping people cope with MS symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

Even though MS is a lifelong condition that has no cure, there are treatments that can help you maintain a good quality of life. You can also learn to manage your symptoms and flare-ups, and take steps to prevent some of the potential long-term complications of the disease.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does MS get worse over time?

    MS is a progressive disease, which means that it does get worse over time. However, the course that MS takes will be different for everyone with the disease. There are some things you can do that might help slow the progression of the disease, such as taking certain medications or making lifestyle changes. These steps can also help you cope more effectively with symptoms and flare-ups.

  • Is MS fatal?

    MS is not considered a fatal disease, but it can cause complications and there are some health conditions that can occur along with it (comorbidities). Roughly half of all people with MS will die from MS-related causes. However, research has also shown that many people with MS die from other health conditions or for other reasons that are not associated with the disease at all.

  • Can you live a normal life with MS?

    MS is an unpredictable disease, and it can be hard to feel like you have a "normal life" when you're trying to manage it. That being said, many people with MS have periods of complete or partial remission of their symptoms that can last for years. During these periods, many people are able to resume their usual activities and life might feel more "normal" or typical for them.

  • Can MS be cured?

    There is no cure for MS. However, recent advances in treatment have made it a more manageable disease. The life expectancy and quality of life expectations for people with MS have increased in the past few decades and continue to rise.

Was this page helpful?
16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. MS Signs and Symptoms.

  2. Steinman L. Immunology of relapse and remission in multiple sclerosis. Annu Rev Immunol. 2014;32:257-281. doi:10.1146/annurev-immunol-032713-120227

  3. Kamel FO. Factors Involved in Relapse of Multiple Sclerosis. J Microsc Ultrastruct. 2019 Jul-Sep;7(3):103-108. doi:10.4103/JMAU.JMAU_59_18

  4. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Multiple Sclerosis: Hope Through Research. Updated March 25, 2021.

  5. GBD 2016 Multiple Sclerosis Collaborators. Global, regional, and national burden of multiple sclerosis 1990-2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Lancet Neurol. 2019 Mar;18(3):269-285. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(18)30443-5

  6. Lunde HMB, Assmus J, Myhr KM. Survival and cause of death in multiple sclerosis: a 60-year longitudinal population study. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2017 Aug;88(8):621-625. doi:10.1136/jnnp-2016-315238

  7. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Multiple Sclerosis FAQs.

  8. Lin SD, Butler JE, Boswell-Ruys CL, et al. The frequency of bowel and bladder problems in multiple sclerosis and its relation to fatigue: A single centre experience. PLoS One. 2019 Sep 19;14(9):e0222731. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0222731

  9. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Sexual Problems.

  10. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Cognitive Changes.

  11. Marrie RA, Elliott L, Marriott J, et al. Effect of comorbidity on mortality in multiple sclerosis. Neurology. 2015 Jul 21;85(3):240-247. doi:10.1212/WNL.0000000000001718

  12. McGinley MP, Goldschmidt CH, Rae-Grant AD. Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Sclerosis: A Review. JAMA. 2021 Feb 23;325(8):765-779. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.26858

  13. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Rehabilitation.

  14. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Complementary and Alternative Medicines.

  15. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. AHSCT in MS (Autologous Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation).

  16. Scalfari A, Knappertz V, Cutter G, et al. Mortality in patients with multiple sclerosis. Neurology. 2013 Jul 9;81(2):184-192. doi:10.1212/WNL.0b013e31829a3388