There are three main types of MS, each with its own characteristics. Regardless of the ‘type’, some people may be only mildly affected throughout their lives, while for others the effects may become noticeable quite quickly. Most people with MS experience something in between these extremes. It is not always clear what type of MS someone has, particularly when newly diagnosed and regardless of the type, health professionals will base symptom management on individual needs.

Remember that whatever name is given to your MS, how you best manage it will be a personal thing – any name for MS is only a guide to help you and your care team find the best treatment.

Relapsing Remitting MS

MS is nearly always described as a relapsing remitting condition – meaning that symptoms appear (a relapse), and then fade away, either partially or completely (remission). For most people with MS this is the way their MS begins, except for the small group of people who have primary progressive MS (about 15 per cent of all people with MS).

Diagnosis of relapsing remitting MS rests on:

  • Two relapses, separated by more than 30 days OR
  • One relapse and an MRI scan three months later that shows new lesions

‘Benign’ MS

If, after 10 to 20 years, your condition hasn’t worsened and you have very little or no disability, you might then be said to have ‘benign’ MS. It is difficult to give exact figures, but probably between 10 and 30 per cent of people with MS fit this broad description and have had many years without major disability. But using the word ‘benign’ can be misleading. ‘Benign’ MS doesn’t mean that someone’s condition has been completely problem-free; and a relapse can occur after many years of inactive MS. Unfortunately, it’s still difficult to predict future MS symptoms, even by looking at the symptoms someone has already had.

Secondary Progressive MS

Most people with relapsing remitting MS eventually develop ‘secondary progressive’ MS – around 65 per cent have developed it after 15 years.

Secondary progressive MS, as the name suggests, sees a progressive increase in people’s symptoms, but this progression can be very slow. Changes might be so slight that they are hard to notice for a long time.

To determine if a person has secondary progressive MS, they must have had relapses in the past and shown a steady increase in disability for at least six months, whether or not they continue to have relapses.

Primary Progressive MS

Primary progressive MS (PPMS) affects about 10 to 15 per cent of people diagnosed with MS. It is called this because from the first (primary) symptoms it is progressive. Symptoms gradually get worse over time, rather than appearing as sudden attacks (relapses).  PPMS is diagnosed if:

  • There have been no previous relapses and
  • There is a progression of disability over at least a year
  • An MRI scan that shows lesions consistent with MS
  • Evidence of MS detected by examining the spinal fluid collected during a lumbar puncture (this is the only situation where a lumbar puncture is needed to diagnose MS).

Remember that whatever name is given to your MS, how you best manage it will be a personal thing – any name for MS is only a guide to help you and your care team find the best treatments

Further Information

To read and understand more about MS the MS Society website is extremely comprehensive and you can find plenty of information about MS and treatment options.


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