Multiple sclerosis, better known as MS, affects more than 1 million adults in the United States. It is an autoimmune disease that’s caused when the body attacks its own tissues. More specifically, the immune system attacks and wears down myelin in the nerves.
Myelin is a protective coating that protects your nerve fibers from damage. If this is damaged or worn away, then your nerves will have trouble sending signals from your brain to your body and vice-versa. Over time, this disease can cause permanent damage to your brain or body.
Four types of MS are known to exist. The most common type is relapsing-remitting MS(RRMS). As the name implies, symptoms tend to come and go. During remission phases, the disease isn’t progressing.
Many RRMS patients will see their MS progress into secondary progressive MS(SPMS). Here, the disease is now progressing and causing increasingly debilitating symptoms that can seriously affect your life. If you’re seeing symptom progression from the start, that’s a sign of primary progressive MS(PPMS).
The final type is known as clinically isolated syndrome(CIS). CIS consists of a single episode of symptoms that lasts 24 hours. This is caused by lesions on demyelinated nerves.
MS symptoms can be hard to pin down since the disease affects everyone differently. Symptom severity can vary daily, monthly or yearly, and the four major variants of MS often exhibit different signs.
The most common symptom is fatigue. Approximately 80% of MS sufferers feel fatigued on a regular basis. Other common symptoms include dizziness, slurred speech, tingling or tremors in limbs and lower body difficulties. These latter problems include bowel, bladder, and sexual incontinence.
Other symptoms can include electric-shock sensations when moving your neck and numb or week feelings on one side of your body. Numbness or weakness in your legs and lower body can also mean MS. All of these problems can lead to difficulty walking.
Finally, there are symptoms that affect the head. Partial or total vision loss combined with pain in one eye is considered a symptom. So are difficulties with concentration, memory, or problem-solving skills. If you experience any combination of these symptoms without any other cause, you should see a doctor.
The direct cause of MS is unknown. Although the disease can’t be directly inherited from a parent, many epidemiologists have pointed out that genetics is a likely factor in who gets the disease.
There are other factors that increase your likelihood of getting MS. Although it can appear at any age, it’s most likely to strike younger people between the ages of 16-55. Women are between two to three times more likely than men to get RRMS. This has led epidemiologists to believe that certain hormones could be a factor.
Race is also considered a factor. Northern European Caucasians are considered the most likely group to get MS. People of Asian, African or Native American descent are less likely to get it. Some experts point out that Northern Europeans are more susceptible to Vitamin D and sunlight deficiencies, and these are also warning signs
MS is also more common for people who live in temperate climates such as the United States, New Zealand, Canada and much of Europe. It is also more likely among people who have a family history of this disease.
People with other immune system issues are also more likely to get the disease. Diseases such as type one diabetes, IBS or thyroid disease increase the chances of MS due to your nerves already being at high risk. Epstein-Barr disease is also linked to an increased likelihood of MS later in life.
MS is discovered through what’s known as a differential diagnosis. This is where doctors rule out other conditions that could cause similar symptoms. No specific test for MS is known to exist, so this is the only way to find out if you have it.
After you’ve received a thorough examination and a look at your medical history, your doctor will start performing tests. Blood tests, for example, will rule out certain diseases with similar symptoms to MS.
A lumbar puncture will allow doctors to look at the fluid in your spinal canal. Certain antibodies are associated with MS, and they will be present in the spinal fluid if you have the disease. MRIs can also detect lesions on your brain or spinal cord.
Most people with RRMS will only need these few tests for a diagnosis. Other types, however, require other tests such as evoked potential tests. These detect the electrical signals your brain receives when responding to certain stimuli.
There is no cure for MS, but there are many different treatment options available. The most common medications for combating MS are corticosteroids. These can be taken orally or intravenously, and they’ll help to reduce nerve inflammation.
If steroids aren’t helping to relieve the inflammation, your doctor may suggest plasmapheresis. This involves removing blood plasma, which is the liquid part of your blood and adding albumin to it before returning it to your body.
To stop the progression of the disease, your doctor can prescribe a variety of medications. Most can be taken orally like dimethyl fumarate (Tecfidera) or teriflunomide(Aubagio). Others require intravenous or infused administration such as beta interferons or ocrelizumab(Ocrevus). These drugs do carry risks, but they can also considerably slow down MS progression.
There are also plenty of treatments available to combat and cope with MS symptoms. Drugs such as methylphenidate(Ritalin) can be used to help combat MS-related fatigue. Dalfampridine(Ampyra) may be prescribed to increase your walking speed. Other drugs can help you alleviate things such as mobility troubles, muscle spasms or incontinence.
Another common treatment for MS patients is physical therapy. Therapists can show you different exercises that can straighten and strengthen your legs, which will allow you to move around and do everyday tasks. If necessary, your therapist will prescribe you with a mobility aid like a cane.