Multiple sclerosis is not a fatal disease. Except in rare cases of severe disease, most people with multiple sclerosis have a normal or near-normal life span and usually die from the same conditions (heart disease, cancer) that affect the general population. Still, MS symptoms can negatively affect quality of life. Suicide rates among patients with MS are higher than average.
The majority of patients with MS do not become severely disabled. Twenty years after diagnosis, about two-thirds of people with MS remain ambulatory and do not need a wheelchair, although many of them may use a cane or crutches for walking assistance. Some patients use an electric scooter or wheelchair to help cope with fatigue or balance problems.
The severity of the disease, and how the disease progresses, varies widely from patient to patient and is unpredictable. About 20% of patients remain asymptomatic or become only mildly symptomatic after an initial clinical event. Another 20% experience a rapidly progressive condition. Most patients will have some degree of disease progression.
Women tend to have a better outlook than men. Factors that determine a higher risk for a severe condition include:
- Age over 40 years at the time of onset of symptoms
- Initial symptoms that affect motor control, mental functioning, or urinary control
- Initial symptoms that affect multiple regions of the body
- Attacks in the first years that are frequent, or a short time between the first two attacks
- Incomplete remissions
- Rapid progression to disability
- MS that is progressive from the beginning or becomes progressive shortly after the onset
Review Date: 06/17/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.