Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. It’s estimated that 2.3 million people worldwide have MS. In this post we’ll examine the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of this disease.
With MS, the immune system begins to attack the protective sheath, called myelin, that covers the nerve fibers. The result is faulty communication between the brain and the rest of the body. The disease may eventually cause the nerves deteriorate and they may even become irreversibly damaged.
The symptoms experienced and the rate of progression and severity of the disease will vary greatly from person to person. Some individuals may have a very minor form of MS, while others will go on to become paralyzed, or, in rare instances, have a potentially fatal form that progresses rapidly from onset.
MS has several difference courses, in terms of how the disease progresses:
Relapse-Remitting MS: Most people with MS experience times of new symptoms, or relapses, that develop in a relatively short period of time followed by periods remission where there are few or no symptoms.
Secondary-Progressive MS: About 60 to 70% of people with relapse-remitting MS type will go on to experience a steady progression of symptoms.
Primary-Progressive MS: Some individuals have a gradual onset and progression of symptoms without relapses.
Benign MS: MS is considered benign if the individual has no relapses and a mild, stable disability after about 15 years from the time of diagnosis.
Because MS attacks the central nervous systems, a wide range of symptoms in nearly any function can occur. Symptoms will also vary in type and severity from one person to another. Symptoms can resolve, come and go, or be permanent. Common symptoms include:
- Blurred vision
- Partial or complete loss of vision
- Loss of balance
- Poor coordination
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Slurred speech
- Electric shock sensations
- Numbness or weakness
- Extreme fatigue
- Temperature sensitivity
- Memory and concentration problems
Causes and Risks Factors
While the cause of MS is unknown, many believe it is a mix of genetics and environmental factors. Scientists have identified several risk factors that may be associated with MS:
- Genetics and family history
- Gender (women are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop MS)
- Age (most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20-50)
- Certain infections, including the Epstein-Barr virus
- Certain autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes or thyroid disease
MS is often a hard disease to diagnose, especially because symptoms vary from person to person, can come and go, and are similar to other disorders of the nervous system. While there is no single diagnostic test, there are several methods physicians use to evaluate individuals for MS, including:
- Blood tests to screen for other diseases with similar symptoms (e.g. Lyme disease)
- Balance, coordination, vision, and other tests to see how the nerves are functioning
- MRIs to detect changes in the brain (lesions) and/or spinal cord
- Evoked potentials tests, which evaluate electrical activity in the brain
- Analysis of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain and spinal cord for specific proteins
- Spinal tap to look for abnormalities in antibodies, and look for infections or other conditions with similar symptoms
At present, there is no cure for MS. However, there are several treatments doctors utilize in an effort to manage symptoms, shorten the length of attacks, and modify the progression of symptoms. Some of them are listed below.
Treatment to Modify Progression
- Medications to curb the body’s immune system to attempt to stem the body’s attack on the myelin
Treatment for MS Attacks
- Corticosteroids to reduce nerve inflammation
- Muscle relaxants
- Plasma exchange
Treatments for Symptoms
- Medications (fatigue, depression, and other symptoms)
- Muscle relaxants
- Physical therapy
- Staying cool, sometimes with devises such as a cooling vest (symptoms often worsen when body temperature rises)
- Alternative medicine (acupuncture, massage, relaxation techniques)
- Exercise and reducing stress
Treatment will often involve an interdisciplinary approach and may require treatment from a care team including neurologists, physiatrists, urologists, psychiatrists, physical and occupational therapists, and others as needed.
These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose. Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.
National Multiple Sclerosis Society, https://www.nationalmssociety.org
Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org
John Hopkins Medicine, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org