Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is an autoimmune disease. Normally your immune system protects you by attacking invaders such as viruses and bacteria. With MS and other autoimmune diseases, your immune system reacts abnormally. When you have MS, it attacks the nerves in your brain and spine.
Symptoms of MS
MS symptoms can range from mild to severe. They can come and go unpredictably. Symptoms can be different from person to person. Your symptoms may be triggered by becoming overheated or having an infection that raises your body temperature.
Common symptoms include tingling and numbness, especially in the hands and feet. You may feel very tired, or have mental confusion or short-term memory loss. You may have muscle spasms or shooting pains, or have trouble walking. You may need to urinate a lot or have trouble moving your bowels. You may also have vision problems, or emotional upset such as depression.
If old symptoms suddenly get worse or if new symptoms start, you could be having what is called an MS relapse. In a relapse, the symptoms last for 24 hours or more and are not due to infection or high body temperature.
Causes of MS
The exact cause of MS is not known. It is most likely caused by a combination of things. You may be born with genes that make you more likely to develop MS. These genes may be triggered by something in your environment. Two possible triggers are low levels of vitamin D and infections. If a close relative has the disease, your risk increases slightly. 1
Other risk factors of MS include lack of sunlight exposure and low vitamin D levels. Smoking is also a risk factor. Having the Epstein-Barr virus in your body can also put you at higher risk.
The causes of MS symptoms are now better understood. When your immune system attacks your central nervous system, it hurts the fatty, protective lining around the nerves in your brain and spine. This lining is called myelin. Over time these attacks can cause myelin to be replaced by scar tissue. This scar tissue disrupts or delays nerve signals.
The damage from attacks can build up over time. Some symptoms may become permanent. Most people with MS have a type that comes and goes. This is called relapsing-remitting MS. Most people don’t become severely disabled by MS, and MS does not shorten their life. People with a less common type of MS called progressive MS have more risk of becoming disabled.
Diagnosis of MS
A healthcare specialist called a neurologist will make an MS diagnosis. He or she will base the diagnosis on your symptoms, a physical exam, and the results of a group of tests. You may have an MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging test. This test uses radio waves and a computer to create an image of your brain. Your spinal fluid may also be tested.
There is no cure for MS yet, but there are good treatments. There are drugs to take when you have an attack, drugs to take for daily symptoms, and drugs to prevent the disease from getting worse.
Drugs that can prevent MS attacks have changed the way MS is treated over the past 20 years. These drugs are called disease-modifying agents.
Daily medications to ease symptoms include drugs to prevent bladder problems, relieve muscle spasms, or increase your energy.
Steroids are drugs you can take when you have a relapse. They fight inflammation and can help an attack end more quickly. They do not change the course of your disease.
A procedure called plasmapheresis, or plasma exchange, can also help reduce symptoms. During the procedure, your blood is taken. Certain parts of the blood that can cause symptoms are removed by a machine. The plasma is then sent back into your veins.
Rehabilitation is another important part of treatment. This includes physical and occupational therapy to help you function better at home or at work. You can also learn to use aids like a cane, braces, or a wheelchair if you need to.
What to Do
There is no way to prevent MS, but there are things you can do to help manage the condition and live better. Learn as much as you can about your disease. Work closely with your healthcare providers to find the best treatment plan. Avoid getting overheated or becoming overtired. Avoid stress and find ways to manage stress. Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise. And make sure you get the emotional support you need.
What We Have Learned
- MS is a disease caused by a virus. True or False?
The answer is False. No one knows yet what causes MS.
- MS can be cured. True or False?
The answer is False. There is no cure for MS yet, but there are drugs to help you manage MS attacks, to manage your daily symptoms, and to prevent your MS from getting worse.
- Eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of regular exercise can help relieve your MS symptoms. True or False?
The answer is True. Both can help you manage your MS and live better.