Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. In MS, the immune system attacks the protective shell (myelin) of nerve fibers throughout the body. Scar tissue then accumulates around the nerves which eventually causes nerve damage. Once the nerves are damaged with scar tissue, they cannot receive the signals sent from the brain to operate properly.
The severity of MS is different in every case. It can range from mild to completely disabling depending on the severity of the disease. Because MS is an autoimmune disease that affects nerves throughout the body, the symptoms are unpredictable -- they can come and go (relapse and remission) and change in intensity. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, double vision, blurred vision, weakness in either one side of the body or the upper or lower half of the body, difficulty walking, balance issues, fatigue, loss of bladder or bowel control, pain, numbness, cognitive issues, sexual dysfunction, shock sensations, tremors, dizziness, slurred speech, tingling sensations, and in severe cases, paralysis and vision loss.
Multiple Sclerosis is broken down into four types: Clinically-Isolated Syndrome (CIS), Relapsing-Remitting MS (RRMS), Secondary-Progressive MS (SPMS), and Primary-Progressive MS (PPMS).
The CIS form of MS involves an isolated incident that usually lasts 24 hours or possibly longer. Symptoms are not initially linked to MS but are caused by inflammation of the central nervous system. If tests are performed and brain lesions are present, the patient has a higher chance of relapse and receiving an MS diagnosis.
Eighty-five percent of people with MS have Relapsing-Remitting MS. This type of MS usually begins in early adulthood with symptoms appearing in the early 20s and/or 30s. RRMS is characterized by flare-ups (relapses) of symptoms followed by a time of remission (symptoms are not present). Both relapses and remissions can last from a day to several months or even years.
Approximately 60-80% of those who have Relapsing-Remitting MS are eventually diagnosed with Secondary-Progressive MS (usually within 10-20 years). In SPMS, the relapses become longer and the remissions become shorter in duration. Worsening MS symptoms usually involve difficulty with mobility and gait.
In Primary-Progressive MS, the relapses and remissions are indistinguishable and symptoms progressively worsen. PPMS is complex and difficult for doctors to diagnose; only 10% of people with MS have this type and are usually not diagnosed until after 40. Unfortunately, treatments for this type of MS are not usually helpful, and PPMS leads to disability sooner than the other types of MS.
No single test exists that can diagnose MS; however, a combination of tests can lead to a proper diagnosis. These tests include blood tests, MRI, spinal tap, eye exams, balance tests, motor-skill tests, and evoked-potentials tests (measuring electrical activity in the brain). Physicians look for damage to the central nervous system.
Currently, no cure exists for MS but receiving the proper diagnosis as well as a treatment plan can make living with MS manageable. Medication can be prescribed to slow the progression of the disease, treat attacks, ease symptoms, and calm the stress that comes from living with MS. Medication that slows down your immune system may be used to help with MS. Beta interferons are one of the most common medications used to help with MS by easing symptoms and helping to prevent flares. These medications may cause flu-like symptoms that subside within a few months. Chemotherapy medications are also an option when other medications fail to provide relief. Furthermore, physical therapy is often recommended to help with mobility issues. Lifestyle remedies such as diet modification, exercise, staying cool, and stress relief (yoga, meditation, deep breathing) may help with managing MS, and support groups can aid in emotional well-being.