Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an inflammatory, autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the central nervous system (CNS), specifically a protective sheath called myelin that surrounds and protects the nerve fibers in the spinal cord, brain, and optic nerves. The damaged myelin forms scar tissue (sclerosis), which gives the disease its name. When any part of the myelin sheath or nerve fiber is damaged or destroyed, nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord are distorted or interrupted, producing a variety of neurological problems and severe disabilities that can occur. There are relapsing-remitting and progressive types of MS, but the course is rarely predictable. Researchers still don’t fully understand the cause of MS or why the rate of progression is challenging to determine. Many people living with MS do not develop severe disabilities. Most have an average or near-average lifespan.
- Globally more than 2.8 million people are affected.
- MS is three times more common in women than men.
- MS was first diagnosed in the year 1849.
- The severity of symptoms can vary from person to person.
- People with type 1 diabetes, thyroid disorder, and inflammatory bowel disease are at increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis.
Symptoms of MS
Symptoms vary a great deal from one person to another. No two people have the same combination of symptoms. This, of course, complicates identification and diagnosis. Symptoms may disappear entirely, or they may persist and worsen over time. It can affect the mind, body, and senses in several ways, including:
- Weakness and excessive fatigue
- Vision problems: blurred or double vision or total vision loss
- Problems with thinking, learning, and planning
- Depression, anxiety, or personality changes
- Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
- Walking difficulties, dizziness, and vertigo
- Numbness, tingling, or burning in the limbs
- Muscle stiffness or spasms
- Problem with bladder, bowel
Early damage in the central nervous system can occur before you experience any symptoms.
Who is more likely to get multiple sclerosis?
Research shows that genetic vulnerabilities combined with environmental factors may cause MS. The following are risk factors for MS:
- Age between 20 and 40, although people of any age can get it.
- Family history of MS
- Gender – three times more common in women than men.
Rates of MS are usually higher further from the equator. Some researchers consider Vitamin D deficiency as a possible explanation for this. Adequate intake of Vitamin D may reduce the risk of MS.
How is multiple sclerosis diagnosed and treated?
Early diagnosis is vital since treatment can slow the disease. There’s no single test for MS. To receive a diagnosis, a doctor must collect your medical history and perform a neurological examination and a series of tests. These tests include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that looks for damage in the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), and blood and cerebrospinal fluid tests to detect inflammation and specific disease biomarkers. Evoked potential tests that measure electrical signals from the brain are also frequently used to determine if the speed of electric impulses is impaired.
Treatment for managing multiple sclerosis
There is no cure for MS, but treatments are available to lessen the frequency and severity of relapses and can help manage and treat symptoms. Studies show that the best chance for reducing long-term disability is during the early relapsing phase of the disease. This phase is characterised by inflammation, which does much of the damage. The medications currently available primarily target inflammation. Early and ongoing treatment helps minimise this inflammation and reduces damage to nerve fibers (axons) and loss of brain tissue.
Medications are used to modify the disease course, treat relapses — also called attacks or exacerbations — and manage symptoms. Along with the other essential components of comprehensive MS care, these medications help you manage your MS and enhance your quality of life.
Most people with MS learn to cope with the disease and continue to lead satisfying, productive lives.