Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the central nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. It is considered an autoimmune disease, which means it occurs as a result of the body's immune system attacking and damaging its own nervous system.

MS damages the outer covering of nerve cells, called myelin, which is a fatty tissue that protects nerve cells in the same way that insulation protects electrical wiring in a house. Myelin helps nerve fibers conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain. Scar tissue, called sclerosis, accumulates when multiple areas of myelin are damaged. These damaged areas also are known as plaques or lesions.

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When MS damages the protective myelin sheath of nerve cells, the sheath sometimes repairs itself and nerves work correctly again. In other cases, the myelin is so damaged that the underlying nerve does not repair itself and dies. Sometimes, the nerve cells are damaged and degenerate independently of myelin sheath injury.

The cause of MS is not yet known. Factors such as inflammation, infections, poisons and drugs may damage the myelin sheath, but none of the factors has been identified as the cause of the disease. Heredity also may contribute to the development of the condition.

About 5 percent of patients have a sister or brother who has MS and about 15 percent have a close relative with the disease, although a specific MS gene abnormality has not yet been identified. Other factors like environmental factors might be involved as the incidence of disease significantly varies with the geographical latitude.

Over time, MS usually evolves into alternating periods of good health, called remission, and disabling flare-ups of the disease, known as relapses. The prognosis for children with MS varies.

At UCSF's Children's Hospital, our Pediatric Multiple Sclerosis Center is dedicated to improving the treatment, diagnosis and awareness of children and adolescents with MS and related diseases. It is the only center of its kind on the West Coast and is designated by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society as a center of excellence in comprehensive care for pediatric patients with MS.

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About 400,000 Americans suffer from multiple sclerosis (MS), which is most commonly diagnosed in young adults. In rare cases, the condition affects infants, children and adolescents. Up to 5 percent of people with MS experience symptoms before the age of 18.

Due to a recent increase in education about pediatric MS, the number of children diagnosed has risen. But there is still a lack of awareness about the disease in those under age 18 and it is believed that MS is often under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed in this population.

MS symptoms may mimic those of other conditions and may differ in severity, depending on where the damage occurs in the central nervous system.

Tingling, numbness and sensations of tightness or weakness may result when myelin in the spinal cord is damaged. Damage to the cerebellum portion of the brain may result in imbalance or a lack of coordination.

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An early diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) is critical in the management of your child's disease and quality of life. Research has shown that adults who receive an early diagnosis and begin prompt treatment experience fewer relapses and are less likely to develop disability.

To diagnosis MS, your child's doctor will conduct a thorough physical examination, asking about symptoms your child is experiencing, including when they started and how they've eased or progressed over time. Your child's doctor will record a full medical history, including information about your immediate and extended family's medical history.

A series of tests may be conducted, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Over the past two decades, the number of children and adolescents diagnosed with MS has risen significantly, due in part to the use of MRI in the diagnosis of the disease.

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Children and adolescents with multiple sclerosis (MS) receive treatment at our Pediatric Multiple Sclerosis Center. Our team works with each patient to develop a treatment plan, including long-term follow-up care specifically tailored to his or her needs.

When necessary, we collaborate with other specialists at UCSF or elsewhere to ensure that your child receives the most comprehensive care possible.

Because we are part of an international network of six pediatric MS centers sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, we have access to the latest information, research and treatments.

Currently, there is no cure for MS, although medications are available to help control the disease or slow its course. These medications have not been formally evaluated in patients under the age of 18, but these drugs help control the disease in adults and appear well tolerated in children and adolescents. Treatments include drugs that help children recover from MS flare-ups and that prevent MS flare-ups.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Pediatric Brain Center

Multiple Sclerosis Center
400 Parnassus Ave., 8th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94117
Phone: (415) 353-3939
Fax: (415) 353-3543
Appointment information

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