Multiple Sclerosis (MS) | Symptoms and Causes

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Contact the Pediatric Multiple Sclerosis Related Disorder Program

There are four types of MS:

  • Clinically isolated syndrome (CIS): This is the first attack of MS before diagnosis with MS. Not everyone with CIS goes on to develop MS.
  • Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS): Most children with MS are diagnosed with this type. It’s also the most common form of MS. People with RRMS will have attacks (relapses) of symptoms that go away (remit) and come back later. During the time in between attacks, there are no new symptoms or worsening of the disease.
  • Primary progressive MS (PPMS): People with this type of MS have chronic symptoms that steadily get worse over time.
  • Secondary progressive MS (SPMS): With this type of MS, symptoms steadily get worse. Most people who have RRMS eventually develop SPMS. 

What are the symptoms of MS?

Each person’s symptoms vary depending on the location of scarring. Common symptoms of MS in children can include:

  • weakness and clumsiness
  • exhaustion
  • blurry vision or changes in vision
  • numbness
  • a “pins-and-needles” tingling
  • muscle stiffness
  • loss of balance
  • changes in bladder or bowel function
  • dizziness
  • seizures

Cognitive and emotional symptoms

About 50 percent of people with MS have some cognitive symptoms, which are usually mild. These can include:

  • difficulty with concentration
  • trouble learning and remembering information
  • poor judgment
  • short attention span

If these symptoms affect your child’s school performance, it’s important to work with your child's school and medical team to help address any problems.

Children with MS may also have emotional symptoms in reaction to the stress of living with a chronic, unpredictable illness. Every child has a different way of expressing these emotions, but common signs include:

  • sudden increase or decrease in appetite
  • changes in sleeping patterns
  • low energy
  • irritability

If you notice these signs in your child, let your pediatrician or neurologist know right away.

What are the causes of MS?

The exact cause of MS is still a mystery. But we do know that autoimmune diseases are not contagious, and they don’t appear to be caused by any one thing in particular. Instead, scientists believe there’s a multi-step process at work:

  • Heredity: Children inherit certain genes from their parents that make them susceptible to a particular disease.
  • Environmental factors: The disease doesn’t reveal itself until it’s “triggered” by something — such as an infection or exposure to certain toxins or drugs.

Researchers are working to discover which genes are involved and how they interact. They are also looking at a number of potential environmental and hormonal triggers in hopes of one day finding a cure.

Who’s at risk for MS?

Although researchers don’t fully understand what causes certain people to develop MS, certain environmental and genetic factors can increase the risk.

MS is most common in:

  • females
  • Caucasians
  • those with a parent or sibling who has MS
  • people who live in temperate climates, such as the United States, Europe, New Zealand and Australia
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