What is multiple sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a very serious autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system protects the myelin (protective sheath) that covers the nerve fibres. This creates problem with communication between your brain and the rest of the body. Multiple sclerosis can cause the nerves to deteriorate or become permanently damaged. Multiple sclerosis affects approximately 2.5 million people across the world. About 400,000 Americans are included in this population. There is no current cure for multiple sclerosis. However, treatment can help manage symptoms. Multiple sclerosis affects more women than men and symptoms often begin showing between the ages of 20 and 40.
There is no single test for multiple sclerosis. The diagnosis must be made on clinical symptoms, separate test results and family history. Tests to diagnose multiple sclerosis can include MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging), testing the spinal fluid through a lumbar puncture and an EP test (evoked potentials) that measures the electrical activity in the brain in response to different stimuli. As other conditions can cause de-myelination, it is important to rule out other diseases to make sure you have the correct diagnosis. De-myelination can occur in the following diseases and illnesses:
- Guillain-Barré Syndrome
- Certain viral infections
- Exporsure to toxic materials
- Severe vitamin B12 deficiency
- Other autoimmune disorders that lead to inflammation of the blood vessels (collagen-vascular diseases)
- Instances of rare genetic disorders
Symptoms of multiple sclerosis
Symptoms of multiple sclerosis can vary from person to person. They can also depend on the severity of each individual case. Common symptoms of multiple sclerosis include:
- Numbness or tingling, often caused by neuropathy (nerve damage)
- Weakness in the muscles
- Gait disturbances and walking difficulty
- Spasticity (stiffness of the muscles or muscle spasms, commonly in the legs)
- Vision problems, such as blurred or double vision
- Bladder dysfunction
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Cognitive changes, such as changes in: the ability to focus; remember information; organize and problem solve; and learn new information
- Chronic pain
- Speech problems, such as slurred speech (dysarthria) and loss of volume (dysphonia)
- Breathing difficulties
- Swallowing difficulties (dysphagia)
- Hearing loss
- Chronic headaches
Treatment for multiple sclerosis depends on the severity of the condition. Common treatments include:
- Corticosteroids: These include oral prednisone and intravenous methylprednisolone. These are prescribed to reduce nerve inflammation.
- Plasma exchange (plasmapheresis): This liquid portion of your blood (plasma) is removed and separated from your red blood cells. The blood cells are then mixed with albumin (protein solution) and put back into your body. This treatment is typically used with new symptoms, severe cases or if the patient has not responded to corticosteroid treatment.
- Physical therapy: This helps with loss of muscle tone and muscle weakness to help with potential loss of mobility or gait disturbance.
- Muscle relaxants: These are prescribed for painful or uncontrollable muscle stiffness and spasms, particularly in the legs.
Due to the high probability of relapsing with multiple sclerosis, it is important to see a doctor who specializes in this autoimmune disease, such as a neurologist. Your doctor will be able to help prescribe medications and treatments to help combat and manage the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and give you advice on how to manage symptoms at home.