Everything You Need to Know About Multiple Sclerosis
Worldwide, more than 2.3 million people are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Yet, as it goes with autoimmune diseases, we have little clarity on what causes it, how to diagnose it, and how to cure it.
It then becomes imperative to share and source as much information as possible about the condition that essentially short circuits the connection between your brain and your body.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is multiple sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive, disabling, unpredictable disease that affects the nervous and immune systems of the body.
In MS, the immune system attacks the protective sheaths (myelin) that cover nerve fibers — and the nerve fibers themselves. This disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and the spinal cord. With time, if the symptoms are not identified and managed, MS can cause irreparable damage to nerves and brain tissue.
The damaged areas develop scar tissue, which gives the disease its name — multiple scarring or multiple sclerosis.
What are the types of multiple sclerosis?
There are four ways in which MS spreads, though there is no predictability to any of them:
- Clinically Isolated Syndrome: The first episode of symptoms caused by damage to myelin in the central nervous system.
- Relapsing-remitting MS: Symptoms oscillate between relapses (new symptoms or worsening of older symptoms) that subside, with full or partial recovery, and no disease progression (worsening) between relapses or flare-ups.
- Secondary progressive MS: 60-70% of the time, this follows in people with relapsing-remitting MS and is characterized by a higher progression of disability, with or without flare-ups.
- Primary progressive MS: In which there is a gradual progression of disability from the onset of symptoms, with few or no relapses.
Who can get multiple sclerosis?
There is no definite science behind why the immune system attacks the nervous system in patients with MS, but science has identified some patterns and risk factors that can increase the chances of developing MS.
Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, although children and older adults may also develop it. Women are two to three times more likely to develop MS than men, with research suggesting this gender difference has only widened over the last 50 years. MS occurs in most ethnic groups, but Caucasians of northern Europe are more likely to develop it.
While a parent or sibling having MS may increase one’s risk of developing MS, there is no evidence to date that the disease is directly inherited. Environmental factors, such as low vitamin D, which is thought to support immune function, and cigarette smoking may also increase the risk of MS. The disease is also more common in countries with temperate climates such as Canada, New Zealand, and European countries. This may be due to less sunlight exposure, which allows the body to produce smaller amounts of vitamin D naturally.
Some viruses have also been linked to an increased risk of developing MS, such as the Epstein-Barr virus. Those with diseases such as thyroid and type 1 diabetes are also more likely to develop MS.
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What are the symptoms of multiple sclerosis?
There is no one charter of symptoms; MS symptoms are unpredictable and vary in type and severity not only from one person to another but also within the same person over time, depending on the location of the damaged nerves. Symptoms also tend to disappear (remit) completely, with sudden reappearances and flare-ups. The disease and its symptoms are non-contagious.
The most common symptoms, though, are fatigue, double or blurred vision, numbness in one or more limbs, poor coordination, imbalance, pain, electric-shock like sensations with certain neck movements, memory and concentration loss, and depression. Less common symptoms that can occur at later stages as complications include complete paralysis, blindness, and problems with sexual, bowel and bladder function.
How is multiple sclerosis diagnosed?
No single lab test exists to prove or rule out MS yet, which makes the timely diagnosis of the disease tricky.
In the early stages of MS, symptoms may be generic and could point to one or several unrelated disorders of the nervous systems. In the case of remission and relapse, symptoms may be entirely ignored. However, when doctors believe that MS could be the underlying cause of the myriad symptoms on is experiencing, they use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) along with spinal fluid analysis to reach a definitive diagnosis.
What is the cure for multiple sclerosis?
There isn’t one yet.
The life expectancy of people with MS is about seven years less than the general population because of disease complications. These complications are, however, manageable via medication and therapeutic solutions that modify the course the disease takes to spread. This is done by limiting new areas of potential nerve damage, reducing the number and frequency of relapses, slowing down the progression of disability, and managing the symptoms of the disease.