Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. It begins to develop when the protective covering surrounding nerve cells (called myelin) begin to deteriorate. This disrupts signals that travel from the brain and the spinal cord to other parts of the body. These interruptions are the source of MS symptoms, which can include:
- Visual disturbances or eye pain
- Muscle weakness or tremors
- Trouble with coordination and balance
- Dizziness or fatigue
- Thinking and memory problems
- Sensations such as numbness, prickling, “electric shock” or "pins and needles"
Researchers are not sure what causes this deterioration of cells, although they have learned that it is not genetically passed on, or something that can be transmitted from person to person.
MS can start suddenly, typically in people 20-40 years old and more often in women. There is no single test to diagnose MS. Doctors must look for clues in a person’s medical history and physical exams, and may order blood tests, a lumbar puncture and an MRI to rule out other possible diagnoses. Nerve function tests could also provide important information. The patient will likely be referred to a neurology specialist to confirm the diagnosis.
MS is unpredictable and can affect people in different ways. For some people, the effects are mild. For others, it can have a significant impact on their functional abilities. Depending on the type of MS, symptoms may fade into remission and then flare up again. These four most common types include:
- Relapsing-Remitting MS (RRMS) – characterized by short periods of new or worsening symptoms, followed by long symptom-free periods.
- Secondary-Progressive MS (SPMS) – a slow and steady progression of symptoms, with or without relapses.
- Progressive-Relapsing MS (PRMS) – symptoms worsen from the beginning, with periodic relapses and remissions.
- Primary-Progressive MS (PPMS) – symptoms worsen from the beginning, without periodic relapses and remissions.
Living with MS
Although there is no known cure for MS until today, there are treatments to help alleviate symptoms. It is also important for people to keep in mind that MS is not necessarily disabling – lost function can be regained in some cases – and that it is not fatal.
Understandably, this experience can be challenging emotionally and difficult to cope with at times. Many people with MS find strength through catharsis: art, music, and writing. The support of loved ones and community is also an invaluable resource. Ask your doctor or search online for support groups or MS organizations in your area.