Deciphering MS Speak

Multiple sclerosis is a complex condition that can involve dozens of symptoms. Because MS takes different forms and varies so greatly from person to person, even those of us who live with MS have trouble with the terminology.

Understanding frequently used terms is helpful not only to us, but to the people who care about us and want to understand. These are some of the basic terms that we’re apt to hear on a regular basis.

atrophy: degeneration or wasting away of a body part. In MS, this can happen to muscles that are used infrequently.

autoimmune disorder: when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy body tissue. In MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks the myelin sheath.

central nervous system: the center of the nervous system, including the spinal cord, brain, and optic nerves. The CNS receives and sends signals throughout the body.

demyelination: damage to the myelin sheath, which interrupts the conduction of signals in the affected areas, causing a variety of physical symptoms.

exacerbation: a flare-up of symptoms, also known as an attack, or a relapse.

foot drop: muscle weakness causes the toe to touch down before the heal, creating an awkward gait or a dragging of the foot.

L-Hermitte’s sign: A buzzing sensation brought about by movement of the neck, usually at a downward angle with the chin toward the chest. Often described as feeling like an electric shock, it generally lasts for several seconds.

MS Hug: also known as dysesthesias, the “hug” is an abnormal sensation or pain in the chest. As with other MS symptoms, it is perceived differently by each individual. It is often described as feeling like a compression, the sensation of wearing a tight chest-high girdle, or being squeezed by a boa constrictor. It can be mistaken for a panic attack or a heart attack. An extremely unpleasant event, it is not life-threatening.

myelin: the substance that protects the neurons. It helps the conduction of electrical currents carrying information between cells. It is the damage to the myelin sheath that causes the problems associated with MS.

optic neuritis: inflammation of the optic nerve, causing visual disturbances. It is often the first symptom of MS.

primary progressive MS: from The National Multiple Sclerosis Society:PPMS is characterized by progression of disability from onset, without plateaus or remissions or with occasional plateaus and temporary minor improvements. A person with PPMS, by definition, does not experience acute attacks. Only 10% have PPMS.”

progressive relapsing MS: from the NMSS: “PRMS, which is the least common disease course, shows progression of disability from onset but with clear acute relapses, with or without full recovery. Approximately 5% of people with MS appear to have PRMS at diagnosis.”

pseudo-exacerbation: a flare up of existing symptoms caused by another medical event, such as a urinary tract infection, flu, or elevated body temperature. No true neurological damage takes place.

relapsing/remitting MS: from the NMSS: “RRMS is the most common form of the disease. It is characterized by clearly defined acute attacks with full recovery or with residual deficit upon recovery. Periods between disease relapses are characterized by a lack of disease progression. Approximately 85% of people with MS begin with a relapsing-remitting course.”

remission: full or partial recovery from symptoms.

remyelination: regeneration of the myelin sheath.

Romberg’s sign: the inability to maintain a steady standing posture with eyes closed.

sclerosis: the hardening, or scarring, of tissue.

secondary progressive MS: from the NMSS: “SPMS begins with an initial relapsing-remitting disease course, followed by progression of disability that may include occasional relapses and minor remissions and plateaus. Typically, secondary-progressive disease is characterized by: less recovery following attacks, persistently worsening functioning during and between attacks, and/or fewer and fewer attacks (or none at all) accompanied by progressive disability. According to some natural history studies, of the 85% who start with relapsing-remitting disease, more than 50% will develop SPMS within 10 years; 90% within 25 years.”

spasticity: contraction of muscles causing stiffness and tightness, interfering with movement.

urinary tract infection (UTI): common in people with MS, infection of the urinary tract that may trigger pseudo-exacerbations.

Writer Ann Pietrangelo embraces the concept of personal responsibility for health and wellness. As a multiple sclerosis patient, she combines a healthy lifestyle and education with modern medicine, and seeks to provide information and support to others. She is a regular contributor to’s Reform Health Policy blog in Causes.


Jane L8 years ago


Tina Cadena
Tina Cadena8 years ago

I just found out I have the ppms in the 10 %.I used to have L-Hermitte’s sign.I haven't had one in years with having physiothereapy once a week. I kind of miss them It's like a mini orgasium. (smile)

Black T.
Blacktiger P8 years ago

I watched a TV show about stem cell treatment that works quite well, problem the patients had to go to China for the treatment.
Obviously Big Pharma does not want the FDA to OK the treatments here.

Maryann C.
Maryann C.8 years ago

I have SPMS
This is a very good article it explains everything.