March is multiple sclerosis awareness month, so we are going to dive into what this disabling neurological disease is, how it’s diagnosed, and what treatments are available.
Multiple sclerosis, popularly known as MS, is the most common neurological disease among young adults with symptoms occurring on average between the ages of 20 to 40 years. What happens is that the immune system starts attacking myelin in the central nervous system (brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord). Myelin, also known as white matter, is what makes up the protective layer on nerve fibers in the brain.
MS also attacks the nerve cell bodies (gray matter) and as the disease progresses the cerebral cortex (outermost brain layer) shrinks. Sclerosis is in reference to the areas of scar tissue (plaques or lesions) that result from the attacks on myelin.
Early symptoms include: vision problems, muscle weakness accompanied by painful spasms, tingling or numbness, clumsiness and difficulty balancing, bladder control problems, and intermittent or constant dizziness. Later symptoms can develop as well, such as: Mental or physical fatigue, mood changes and difficulty with emotional control, and cognitive dysfunction (issues with concentration, learning, problems with memory or judgment).
MS takes a different toll on each person in regard to both onset and duration. Most people they will deal with short periods of symptoms then long periods of relative inactivity or dormancy. There are four main types of MS:
1. Relapsing-remitting: Symptoms come in the form of “attacks” and between these attacks individuals recover or return to their usual level of disability. Periods between attacks range from weeks to months to even years.
2. Secondary-progressive: Individuals with this form had a past history of attacks but then began to develop gradual and steady symptoms as well as deterioration in their function over time.
3. Primary-progressive: This is a less common form with progressively worsening symptoms with no relapses although there might be temporary relief from symptoms.
4. Progressive-relapsing: This is the rarest form of MS with steadily worsening symptoms with relapses that occur over time.
There are three common practices for diagnosis: MRI, lumbar puncture (spinal tap), and evoked potential tests that use electrodes on the skin to measure the nervous system’s response to stimulation.
There is currently no cure for MS but there are treatment plans that can reduce relapses and delay the progression of the disease. The two most common treatments are:
– Corticosteroids: IV and/or oral, prescribed over the course of three to five days that quickly suppress the immune system and reduce inflammation.
– Plasma exchange: blood is taken out of the body and harmful components are removed before infusing replacement plasma and transfusing it back into the body.
Managing symptoms takes its own course of treatments and therapies. There are a multitude of other treatment plans so if you or someone you know is suffering from MS it’s best to explore the options that work best for the specific form of MS that is being treated.
For more information on multiple sclerosis check out the Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis or the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America. For more information on health and healthcare in general check out our blog.
Photo by Matúš Kovačovský