What is relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS)?
Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. Relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS) is the most common course of MS.
If you have RRMS, you will experience clearly defined attacks of new or increasing neurologic symptoms. These attacks — also called “relapses” or “exacerbations” — are followed by periods of partial or complete recovery (remissions). During remissions, all symptoms may disappear, or some symptoms may continue and become permanent. However, there is no apparent progression of the disease during the periods of remission.
RRMS can be further characterized as either active (with relapses and/or evidence of new MRI activity over a specified period of time) or not active, as well as worsening (a confirmed increase in disability following a relapse) or not worsening.
Approximately 85 percent of people with MS are initially diagnosed with RRMS.
This graphic shows the kinds of disease activity that can occur in RRMS though each person's experience with RRMS will be unique. Following a relapse, the new symptoms may disappear without causing any increase in level of disability, or the new symptoms may only partially disappear, resulting in an increase in disability. New lesions on MRI, as shown by the arrows, often occur as part of a relapse. However, new MRI lesions indicating MS activity may also occur without symptoms of which the person is aware.
RRMS is defined by inflammatory attacks on myelin — the fatty substance that surrounds and insulates nerve fibers (axons) — as well as the nerve fibers themselves. During these inflammatory attacks, activated immune cells cause small, localized areas of damage that produce the symptoms of MS. Because the location of the damage is so variable, no two people have exactly the same symptoms.
How do I know if my disease course is stable?
Disease activity and worsening should be evaluated at regular intervals by neurologic examination and MRI. Being able to characterize the course of your disease at different points in time helps you and your MS care provider discuss your treatment options and expected outcomes. For example:
- If you have RRMS that is active and worsening, you and your MS care provider may want to discuss a different treatment approach than if there were no evidence of activity or worsening. Together, you can weigh the potential risks and benefits of other treatment options.
- If your symptoms have not worsened while on your current treatment, but you have evidence of new disease activity on your MRI, you and your healthcare provider may discuss switching to another treatment with a different mechanism of action in order to control the disease activity more effectively and help prevent worsening.
If your RRMS is stable without evidence of MRI activity or worsening, you and your healthcare provider can feel confident that the current treatment regimen is working effectively.
How does RRMS differ from progressive types of MS?
While RRMS is defined by attacks or relapses of new MS symptoms, progressive forms of MS involve fewer attacks and are characterized by gradual accumulation of disability.
- People with RRMS tend to develop more new brain lesions — also called “plaques” or “scars” — on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
- People with RRMS tend to have more inflammatory lesions on MRI (seen when gadolinium dye is used during the MRI).
- People with primary progressive MS (PPMS) tend to have more spinal cord lesions.
- In RRMS, women are affected two to three times as often as men. In PPMS, the number of women and men are approximately equal.
RRMS is generally diagnosed earlier than the progressive disease courses.
- Most people with RRMS are diagnosed in their 20s and 30s (although it can occur in childhood or later adulthood) while PPMS is typically diagnosed during the 40s or 50s.
- The transition from RRMS to SPMS generally occurs in people who have been living with RRMS for at least 10 years.
The most common symptoms reported in RRMS include episodic bouts of:
- Bowel and bladder problems
- Problems with cognition (learning and memory or information processing)
- Spasticity or stiffness
- Vision problems
People with progressive forms of MS are also more likely to experience problems with walking and mobility that gradually worsen over time, along with whatever other symptoms they may have.
Managing relapses will help prevent a worsening of disability during the RRMS course. The resources below will help you identify MS relapses and learn strategies to cope with them.
Stories and advice from people living with relapsing-remitting MS
Read firsthand accounts about living with RRMS — and learn some new coping strategies — in the Society’s blog.
Research is ongoing to understand more about MS and how best to treat it. Learn about current clinical research in people with relapsing-remitting and other forms of MS.