Multiple sclerosis stages: Symptoms and timeline

Learning about each type of multiple sclerosis (MS) may help a person gain a better understanding of the disease and its possible treatments following a diagnosis.

MS symptoms occur as a result of the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking the nerve fibers and protective myelin sheath around them.

The damage changes the signals that the nerves send to the body and can lead to scarring in the brain and spinal cord.

In this article, learn more about the types and stages of MS, the treatment options, and the outlook for people with this condition.

Stages of MS

MS primarily affects the central nervous system (CNS), which plays a crucial role in many bodily functions.

As MS can affect so many different bodily functions, each person may experience the disease slightly differently.

There are a few different types and stages of MS, which differ in how they progress.

Clinically isolated syndrome (CIS)

CIS is the first episode of MS symptoms that people experience, and it results from inflammation and damage to the myelin sheath. The National MS Society note that doctors will only define the episode as being CIS if it lasts at least a day.

In some cases, a person can experience CIS and not have MS. To diagnose MS, doctors will use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for active lesions or evidence of past lesions in a person’s brain.

In people who go on to receive an MS diagnosis, the early treatment of CIS may help delay the full onset of the disease.

Relapsing-remitting MS

Most people with MS have the relapsing-remitting form. The first signs of the disease will typically appear before the age of 30 years.

A person with relapsing-remitting MS will experience attacks of new or worsening symptoms. After each attack, they will have an extended period in which their symptoms improve or disappear until the next relapse.

In some cases, symptoms become permanent and only get slightly better during remission.

New lesions often appear on the brain after a relapse. However, they may also appear without causing apparent symptoms.

The severity of symptoms can vary depending on the extent and location of the nerve damage. Remission time can range from about a week to many years.

During the remission phase, the disease will show no signs of progression.

Primary progressive MS

Primary progressive MS is not as common as relapsing-remitting MS. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke state that this type of MS occurs most commonly after the age of 40 years.

People with primary progressive MS have symptoms that gradually get worse over time. They

may not have attacks or a sudden onset of symptoms, but they tend to experience symptoms throughout their life without recovery or remission. The severity of these symptoms can vary.

Some treatments for relapsing-remitting MS are less effective in treating the symptoms of primary progressive MS.

Secondary progressive MS

After a person has lived with relapsing-remitting MS for many years, the disease may eventually progress to secondary progressive MS.

When this occurs, symptoms will gradually become more severe without any further distinction between attacks and remission.

Progressive-relapsing MS

Progressive-relapsing MS is a rare form of the disease. It involves attacks of symptoms but with less recovery than in relapsing-remitting MS.

A person with progressive-relapsing MS may have an attack and then experience very little remission.

Eventually, as the disease progresses, their symptoms may never completely go into remission between attacks.

In general, MS will follow a trend of becoming more severe or debilitating over time.

People with relapsing-remitting MS may find that their symptoms get worse gradually with each attack. In some cases, they may get better for months or years at a time. In other cases, symptoms may remain after an attack and get worse with time.

After having relapsing-remitting MS, most people will progress into secondary progressive MS. The symptoms will get worse over time, and they may stop experiencing relapses or remissions.

In advanced or end-stage MS, more severe symptoms occur. Muscle weakness can lead to a loss of mobility, and the person may start to have serious cognitive problems.

A person with advanced or end-stage MS may lose their physical independence and require continuous care.

Although there is no cure for MS yet, treatment is always improving. Treatment for MS typically involves disease-modulating therapy, which treats relapsing forms of MS as well as managing symptoms and improving a person’s quality of life.

As the disease and its progression vary between people, a doctor will tailor treatment to meet a person’s needs.

Over-the-counter medications, including pain relievers and stool softeners when necessary, may help some people.

Doctors may also order other prescriptions for MS, including:

  • corticosteroid injections during an attack
  • muscle relaxants
  • physical therapy
  • beta interferons
  • glatiramer
  • teriflunomide
  • dimethyl fumarate
  • plasma exchanges

Some complementary therapies may also help some people deal with their symptoms. These include:

  • meditation
  • yoga
  • tai chi
  • reflexology
  • acupuncture
  • breathing exercises

Although these practices are not treatments, they may support medical treatment and help some people with MS manage their symptoms.

Regular light exercise may also help keep the body moving. A physical therapist is likely to recommend stretching after light exercise each day to help keep the muscles strong and flexible.

Anyone who is struggling with their symptoms should speak with a doctor to find more effective treatments and support.


Understanding what to expect in each stage of MS can help people get a better idea of how the disease is progressing so they can seek the best treatment.

Treatment involves managing symptoms and slowing down the progression of the disease. Ongoing scientific research aims to find new ways to treat MS.

Additionally, eating a healthful diet, reducing stress levels, and exercising regularly may all help support an MS treatment plan.

By working directly with a doctor, many people can find a treatment plan that makes it easier to manage their symptoms and track the progress of the disease.

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