How common is multiple sclerosis?

An estimated 2.9 million people in the world have multiple sclerosis. The UK has more than 150,000 people living with MS.

MS is two to three times more common in women than it is in men, and some studies suggest that prevalence in women is increasing.

The distribution of MS around the world is uneven. Generally, the prevalence increases as you travel further north or south from the equator. Countries that lie on the equator tend to have extremely low levels of MS, whilst places closer to the Poles such as New Zealand, Canada and Scotland have particularly high rates.


Epidemiology: the study of the geographical distribution of a condition and patterns of disease as it affects groups of people.

Prevalence: the number of people with a condition. Usually measured in cases per 100,000.

Incidence: the number of new cases of a condition within a set period of time, usually a year.

Ethnicity and MS

Studies show that some ethnic groups have a markedly lower prevalence of multiple sclerosis, despite living in countries where MS is common. For instance, the Sami or Lapps of northern Scandinavia and the Inuits in Canada have very low rates of MS. A similar pattern is observed amongst the Maoris of New Zealand.

The fact that multiple sclerosis is most prevalent in northern Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand has led to speculation that it has been carried around the world by European colonists and settlers. It has been suggested that the origins can be traced back to the Vikings who colonised those parts of Northern Europe where MS is most pronounced and that 'Viking genes' can make people particularly susceptible to MS.

You can read more on theories about the ancient origins of MS here.

Although the 'Viking Genes' idea is appealing, it does not explain the whole pattern in terms of who gets MS. In the UK and the US, large studies have shown that people without a Nordic or European heritage also get MS. In one study of 9 million people in a Californian community, Black men and women had the same or higher risk of getting MS as White residents of the same community.

Studies have also shown that Black people and people from ethnic minorities with MS often reach disability levels sooner and may have a different disease course to White people with MS in the same country. This may be because doctors aren't recognising signs of MS in people from these groups, or Black and minority ethnic people might be less likely to seek medical help for MS symptoms, and so they are diagnosed and treated once their MS is more advanced.

The growing evidence for racial differences in MS experiences is discussed in our article who gets MS and why.

Multiple sclerosis in the UK

A study from the University of Dundee estimated the number of people with MS in the UK, based on GP records. This gave a figure of 127,000 people with MS in the UK in 2010. The study also found that the number of people with MS in the UK is growing by around 2.4% per year, due to people with MS living longer. 

In 2020, Public Health England released new MS prevalence data from GP records from 2018. This revealed that the number of adults with MS in the UK has risen to 131,720. Separate figures for childhood MS at this time suggested that around 250 children in the UK had an MS diagnosis.

In 2024, a new study published by the MS Society reported that the number of people living with MS in the UK had increased sharply to over 150,000. This rise is thought to be due to better diagnosis and people with MS living longer, rather than an increase in the risk of developing MS. This study used data provided by patients and collected by the NHS as part of their care.

Prevalence rates vary around the UK. Based on the figure of 150,000 people with MS, it is estimated that the number of people with MS in each nation is:

  • England is around 123,000 or 1 in every 450 people
  • Wales about 6,100 or 1 in every 500 people
  • Northern Ireland about 5,300 or 1 in every 350 people
  • Scotland about 17,400 or 1 in every 300 people

A little over 7,100 people are diagnosed with MS each year, roughly 135 a week. 

Changes over time

There is evidence to suggest that both MS incidence and prevalence rates have increased over the last few decades. Better access to neurology services and better diagnostic criteria mean that more cases of MS are detected than previously. Also, as people now tend to live longer in general and live longer with MS, the prevalence of MS appears to be greater as well.

Lifestyle factors that have changed over the years could have affected the rates of prevalence and incidence as well. A study in Norway over the last eighty years suggested that people smoked more and got less vitamin D from being outside than at the start of the study period, and that this could have affected the rate at which people acquired MS.

MS registers

Signing up with an MS register means that your experience with MS can help inform and shape future research and health policy. The more information that is known about how many people in the country live with MS and what their needs are, the better our health services can change to meet their needs.

You can update the register if anything changes, and if you wish, your medical data can be linked to your record if you are based with one of the partner hospital trusts. All data collected is anonymised, and researchers can not access any information that identifies you specifically.

  • The UK MS Register is a scheme that allows people to upload information about their condition that allows researchers to look at different aspects of the condition across a large number of people. There are almost 15,000 people registered.
  • The MS Pregnancy Register is linked to the UK MS Register, and helps researchers understand the impact of MS on pregnancy and the health of mothers and babies.
  • The Scottish MS Register gathers information from records on new diagnoses of MS. This register has been running since 2010. 

Find out more

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McAlpine's multiple sclerosis (4th ed).
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McGuigan C, et al.
Latitudinal variation in the prevalence of multiple sclerosis in Ireland, an effect of genetic diversity.
Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry 2004;75:572–576.
Full article (PDF 250KB) (link is external)
Rosati G.
The prevalence of multiple sclerosis in the world: an update.
Neurological Sciences 2001;22:117-139.
Summary (link is external)
Orton SM, et al.
Sex ratio of multiple sclerosis in Canada: a longitudinal study.
Lancet Neurology 2006;5(11):932-936.
Summary (link is external)
Alonso A, et al.
Incidence of multiple sclerosis in the United Kingdom: findings from a population-based cohort.
Journal of Neurology 2007;254(12):1736-1741.
Summary (link is external)
Visser EM, et al.
A new prevalence study of multiple sclerosis in Orkney, Shetland and Aberdeen city.
Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry 2012;83(7):719-724.
Summary (link is external)
Mackenzie IS, et al.
Incidence and prevalence of multiple sclerosis in the UK 1990-2010: a descriptive study in the General Practice Research Database.
Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry 2014;85(1)76-84.
Full article (link is external)
MS Society
MS in the UK report
Full report (link is external)
Scottish MS Register.
National Report 2015 - September 2015.
Summary report (pdf 68kb) (link is external)
Public Health England
Multiple Sclerosis: prevalence, incidence and smoking status - data briefing
UK government briefing (link is external)
MS Society
Number of people living with MS in the UK
The Health Improvement Network Database (A Cegedim Property Database)
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