Definition and Overview
Multiple sclerosis, also referred to as MS, is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system, specifically the brain, spinal cord, and the optic nerves. It is a long-term disease characterized by problems in some basic body functions involving balance, vision, muscle control and coordination. MS affects over 2.5 million people worldwide, and statistics have shown that it affects women almost twice as often as men. Severe cases of multiple sclerosis can lead to permanent disability.
Causes of Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is a condition wherein the natural immune system attacks the protective sheath called myelin that wraps and protects the nerves. Due to damage in the myelin, the communication between the brain and other parts of the body becomes disrupted and diminished. As the immune system attacks the myelin sheath, the nerves become damaged and eventually deteriorate. This damage is currently irreversible.
The cause of this immune system behavior has yet to be fully elucidated. However, scientific research has cited some possible underlying causes and triggers including genetic factors, vitamin D deficiency, and viral or bacterial infection.
Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis
Signs and symptoms of MS can widely vary, depending on the affected nerves. Some of the common symptoms include the following:
- Vision problems (“optic neuritis”) such as blurred vision, loss of vividness and contrast, as well as double vision
- Numbness and tingling sensation in the face and the extremities
- Chronic pain, muscle stiffness, and involuntary muscle spasms
- Unexplained fatigue and weakness
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or vertigo
- Balance problems and problems with gait, leading to trouble walking
- Incontinence and dysfunctional bladder
- Cognitive problems such as (but not limited to) memory, language, focus and attention span
- Unexplained depression
- Irritability and mood swings (called the “pseudobulbar effect”)
- Uncontrollable shaking
- Sudden diminished or loss of hearing
- Breathing and swallowing problems
- Sexual dysfunction
Multiple sclerosis is a puzzling condition due to its variability in terms of manifestation and severity. The earliest symptoms usually start between the ages of 20 and 40. Attacks can last a few weeks and disappear suddenly, often relapsing to become progressively worse. Relapses can sometimes manifest with entirely different symptoms.
Types of Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis can be highly unpredictable and can appear in at least four forms. The kinds of MS include the following:
Relapsing-remitting MS - This type is characterized by symptoms that come and go. The attack may be severe for a time, yet disappears only to come back at a later time.
Secondary-progressive MS - With this kind of MS, symptoms tend to persist and progress with time.
Primary-progressive MS - This type of disease develops later on in life. After the initial attack, the disease progresses more deliberately.
Progressive relapsing MS - With this form of MS, the symptoms progress very slowly, but consistently worsen each time
When to See a Doctor and Diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis
If you suddenly experience a combination of the aforementioned symptoms, it is best to see a doctor right away to rule out a possibility of MS. With Multiple Sclerosis, early detection can go a long way in preventing the condition from progressing quickly. Your general practitioner will usually refer you to a neurologist, who can properly diagnose and treat MS. The neurologist will perform several tests to determine whether your symptoms indicate multiple sclerosis. Some possible tests that will be performed include:
- A neurological exam to check whether nerve function has been compromised
- A comprehensive eye exam to determine whether there are abnormalities in the inner eye
- An evoked potential test to check how efficiently the brain can respond to stimuli
- A spinal tap test where a sample of spinal fluid is extracted through a long needle and studied for further analysis
- An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to check for brain or spinal cord lesions, which may be indicative of myelin sheath damage
- Blood tests to rule out other possible disorders
Treatment Options for Multiple Sclerosis
Currently, there is still no definitive cure that can fully treat multiple sclerosis down to its root. However, there are some treatment methods that can reduce the symptoms, prevent attacks, slow down its progress, and keep the body function in tiptop condition.
Medications: Medications such as oral prednisone and intravenous (IV) methylprednisolone (corticosteroids) are usually recommended to reduce nerve inflammation during attacks. Muscle relaxant drugs such as baclofen and tizanidine are given if the patient experiences uncontrollable muscle spasms or stiffness. Other intravenous medications may be administered depending on the symptoms, including:
- Beta interferons, Teriflunomide (Aubagio), Dimethyl fumarate, or Fingolimod (Gilenya) to reduce frequency and severity of relapses.
- Glatiramer acetate (Copaxone) to prevent the immune system from attacking the myelin.
- Natalizumab (Tysabri), usually administered for severe cases, to prevent immune cells from entering the bloodstream.
Home care: A variety of herbal supplements and nutritional vitamins may offer relief and alleviate symptoms, along with yoga, acupuncture, and homeopathic remedies.
Alternative Therapy: Physical, occupational and speech therapy can help patients with MS efficiently perform daily tasks despite their condition.
Along with these treatment options, regular exercise, adequate rest and support from loved ones can go a long way in managing symptoms of this debilitating disease.
Living with Multiple Sclerosis
Although much is yet to be known about this disease, continuous research in this field of medicine has provided means for proper management of multiple sclerosis. Stem cell and genetic research have gone a long way in repairing damaged nerves caused by MS. There continues to be new methods to treat MS through clinical trials and new drugs. In fact, despite being a chronic condition that can lead to total and permanent disability, patients who have MS live at least 30 years or more after diagnosis. Proper and immediate health care and treatment are imperative to conquer the ill effects of this condition.
- About Multiple Sclerosis (2013). University of California, San Francisco. Available: http://multiplesclerosis.ucsf.edu/educationandsupport/aboutmultiplesclerosis
- What causes MS? (n.d.). National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Available: http://www.nationalmssociety.org/about-multiple-sclerosis/what-we-know-about-ms/what-causes-ms/index.aspx