It’s one of the most prominent neurological threats facing young people around the world today. Nearly one million people in the United States are currently living with multiple sclerosis, with roughly 200 cases diagnosed each and every week.
Researchers estimate that the average person living in the United States has a one in 750 chance of getting multiple sclerosis and yet, there’s still so much that we don’t know. Setting aside the general ignorance of the public at large, the scientific community is still largely trying to put together the puzzle that is this neurological menace. Neurologists still don’t know what causes it, why people get it or how to cure it.
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Today, we’re going to shine a light on this terrible condition, so that you can recognize the warning signs and risk factors in you or the ones that you love.
What is MS?
Multiple sclerosis is a long-lasting, degenerative disease that can affect a patient’s spinal cord, brain, optic nerves, and eyes caused by abnormal immune system behaviors. Instead of defending against infectious organisms and harmful invaders, the immune system in MS sufferers attacks the central nervous system. This process causes inflammation which damages the nerve-protecting coating myelin, the cells that produce myelin, and nerve fibers that are critical to the functioning of the human central nervous system.
Types of MS
Among those who have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, researchers have been able to isolate four distinct MS classifications. Each MS type is named in accordance with the disease’s effect on the human body over time.
The most common type of MS is called Relapsing-Remitting MS (RRMS). RRMS is the most common MS sub-type and presents itself as a series of flare-ups or attacks called relapses. Each attack is followed by a symptom-free recovery period or remission. These flare-ups can happen frequently or infrequently, depending on the patient.
Secondary-Progressive MS (SPMS) is characterized by the steady regression of the central nervous system. Typically, SPMS follows an initial stretch of Relapsing-Remitting MS, only to go on to develop SPMS later in life. Instead of cycles of relapse and remittance, SPMS sufferers will experience symptoms continuously and with greater severity over time.
Primary-Progressive MS (PPMS) occurs in roughly 10 percent of MS sufferers, making it one of the more uncommon sub-types of the disease. Those that suffer from PPMS never experience a relapse/remittance period instead, they suffer from slowly worsening symptoms for most of their life.
The final MS subtype is also the rarest. Affecting roughly five percent of MS patients, Progressive-Relapsing MS (PRMS) is characterized by severe and steadily worsening symptoms from the outset. Those that suffer from PRMS experience relapses of symptoms of which they may never fully recover. Though the symptoms often vary from patient to patient, those PRMS sufferers can expect them to get steadily worse as time progresses.
Symptoms and Causes
MS affects different people in different ways. Medical research has been able to isolate a lengthy list of MS symptoms, but predicting if or when each symptom manifests itself is anyone’s guess.
According to the Mayo Clinic, MS symptoms may include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Numbness or weakness in one or more limbs.
- Partial or complete loss of vision, often with pain during eye movement.
- Prolonged double vision.
- Tingling or pain in parts of your body.
- Electric shock sensations that occur with certain neck movements like bending the neck forward.
- Tremors, lack of coordination or unsteady walking.
- Slurred speech.
- Problems with bladder or bowel function
As you can see, the list of MS symptoms is long and varied. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. If you do experience any of those symptoms, go get checked out by a doctor.
What causes MS? That’s another one of those questions that medical researchers have yet to answer.
Despite the causes being unknown, science does offer us a list of factors that could increase your risk of developing MS. For example, MS most commonly affects people between the ages of 15 and 60. Women are more likely to develop MS — two to three times, in fact — as are smokers or those with a family history of MS. Geographically, MS diagnoses occur more frequently in regions, like Canada, the Northern US and New Zealand, that are further from the equator.
When it comes to MS, there is just so much we do not know. Which makes self-monitoring symptoms and frequent doctor check-ups that much more important.
Treatments and Lifestyle Considerations
MS varies quite substantially from person to person and so does its doctor prescribed treatment. To date, there is no cure for MS and those in the early stages might not require a comprehensive treatment plan.
Physical therapy and mobility aids are common, as are muscle relaxants and various symptom-fighting medications.
To combat MS attacks, doctors often rely on corticosteroids like oral prednisone and intravenous methylprednisone. Both of which are used to reduce nerve inflammation.
Doctors also use a variety of different strategies to modify the progression of the disease and slow the formation of new lesions. A doctor may prescribe beta interferons, Ocrevus, Copaxone, and more to manage symptoms or slow the progression of the disease.
At home, MS sufferers are encouraged to get lots of rest, exercise on a regular basis, eat a balanced diet, and cool down the body with cooling scarves or vests. We recommend joining an MS support group or seeing a counselor as well.
Multiple sclerosis can be scary. There may not be a cure and there may not be an explanation, but doctors can provide MS patients with a variety of tools that can both manage pain and improve quality of life.
Your dollars, time, and voice can also make a difference. To find out how you can help, click on over to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society website.