MS Causes & Symptoms

Learn more about the causes of multiple sclerosis

Medically Reviewed by Ben W. Thrower, M.D.

Many people often ask, "How do you get MS?" While the cause of MS is still unknown, scientists believe that certain genetic makeups are more predisposed to MS, and when exposed to certain environmental factors, can trigger the change in the immune system that causes MS.

The chronic condition is not an infectious disease caused by germs that enter the body and cannot be passed from one person to another. While it’s still unclear why it’s triggered in some people and not others, advancements in MS research have been key for changing the course of treatment and management of MS.

Factors that May Contribute to Multiple Sclerosis 


Genes play a role in MS, but they are only part of the story. While there’s no single gene that will cause someone to develop MS, having certain genes can make a person more susceptible.


Your environment may play a role in your risk for developing MS. For example, locations farther from the equator have higher rates of MS, possibly due to less intense sun exposure and lower vitamin D levels.

Infections and Viruses

Many latent viruses and bacteria, such as measles and Epstein-Barre virus (the virus that causes mononucleosis), may play a role in triggering MS symptoms and disease activity.


Lifestyle factors, like smoking and obesity in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, are linked to increasing a person’s risk of developing MS.

Early Signs and Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

MS symptoms are unpredictable and can change or fluctuate over time. Symptoms may last for a short time or only occur during a relapse, and some people may not have any symptoms. Symptoms can also interact with each other and other co-occurring conditions or diagnoses.

Common Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms

The most common MS symptoms tend to indicate early signs of MS and can occur alone or in combination with other symptoms such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Heat intolerance
  • Sensory dysfunction (such as numbness, stiffness, dizziness, or vertigo)
  • Pain
  • Motor dysfunction (such as muscle weakness, muscle spasticity, or impaired motor control)
  • Bladder dysfunction
  • Bowel dysfunction
  • Vision (such as blurred vision, poor contrast, pain, optic neuritis, or other impairments)
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Cognition (such as problems processing information, learning new information, problem-solving, focusing, or understanding the environment)
  • Mood (such as depression, mood swings, anxiety, laughter, crying, or irritability)

Less Common MS Symptoms

  • Speech disorders include slurring and dysphonia
  • Swallowing problems or dysphagia
  • Hearing loss
  • Seizures 
  • Tremors
  • Breathing problems

When should I see a healthcare provider?

If symptoms associated with MS are out of the ordinary for you and last for more than 24 hours, make an appointment to see your doctor or specialized MS care team for investigation and diagnosis.

The MS care team at Shepherd Center has exceptional knowledge and experience treating patients with MS, so we understand how to differentiate the disease from similar conditions. We offer second opinions to confirm your initial diagnosis. We also offer continuation of treatment or adjustments to your medical care plan once you are diagnosed.

Learn More About Referrals to the MS Institute

The Andrew C. Carlos Multiple Sclerosis Institute at Shepherd Center

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