What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system (CNS) that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. It affects nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord and disrupts the production of specialized protective proteins called myelin, which coat and protect nerve cells and allow for more efficient conduction of electrical signals in the CNS.

MS is the most common disabling neurological condition in young adults and affects nearly 2.3 million people around the world, most of whom are between the ages of 20 and 40. One disease, four courses: MS can be categorized into four separate courses, or types:

  1. Relapsing-Remitting MS (RRMS): This is the most common form of MS, accounting for 85 percent of diagnoses. Those with RRMS typically experience times when the disease is more active and when the individual experiences symptoms more consistently, known as relapses. There are also periods of remission during which no relapses occur and symptoms may even partially or completely disappear for months or years.

  2. Secondary Progressive MS (SPMS): After initially experiencing recoverable relapses and remissions, many people with MS will eventually confront a continuous worsening of their condition. This stage is known as Secondary Progressive MS, or SPMS.

  3. Primary Progressive MS (PPMS): This is the least common form of MS, accounting for around 10 percent of MS diagnoses. It is characterized by a steady progression of neurological problems from its onset, with no distinct relapses or remissions.

  4. Progressive Relapsing MS (PRMS): This is a rare form of the disease, affecting five percent of people with MS. Individuals with PRMS will experience periods of progressive disability, coupled with distinct relapses during which symptoms will worsen.

Signs and Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis 

The location and severity of symptoms vary depending on which nerve fibers are damaged and to what degree. While some people may experience symptoms that resemble those of other illnesses, other symptoms may be quite unique. Common signs and symptoms of MS include:

• Muscle weakness and spasms.
• Poor coordination and balance.
• Numbness or tingling in different parts of the body.
• Pain in the muscles, joints, chest, or other parts of the body.
• Vision loss in one or both eyes.
• Double vision.
• Slurred speech.
• Fatigue.
• Difficulty thinking or solving problems.
• Cognitive dysfunction.
• Depression.
• Problems with bladder or bowel control.

Diagnosing Multiple Sclerosis 

Diagnosing MS can be a challenging, time-consuming and multi-step process. A definite diagnosis of MS is made when the following criteria has been met:

• A patient has experienced at least two attacks (or flare-ups) at separate times,
• Evidence of two or more lesions that can be seen during an MRI scan and
• Exclusion of any other medical condition that may explain the findings.

In cases of progressive forms of MS, the diagnosis may be made without MRI evidence of lesions, if anomalies in spinal fluid can be identified and if an alternative explanation for the symptoms cannot be found.

Treating Multiple Sclerosis 

Though there is no cure for MS, treatments are available to lessen the severity of the disease and improve quality of life. Treatments may be divided into three primary categories:

  1. Disease-Modifying Therapies: These therapies work to slow the progression of the disease by limiting symptomatic relapses, reducing long-term disability, and helping individuals to continue to function in everyday life. Some medications are targeted at reducing inflammation in the CNS, while others help to relieve symptoms.

  2. Symptomatic Treatments: These treatments are designed to treat specific symptoms or side effects of MS. These may include medications to control muscle spasms or medications to reduce fatigue, as well as the use of physical therapy, occupational therapy and counseling.

  3. Complementary and Alternative Therapies: Complementary therapies are those used alongside traditional medical treatments, while alternative therapies are utilized in lieu of tradition medical treatments. These therapies may include cognitive behavioral therapy, dietary changes, exercise and lifestyle modifications, massage, yoga and acupuncture.

Living with Multiple Sclerosis 

Living with MS can be challenging, but there are a number of strategies one can employ to manage the disease and still enjoy a good quality of life. Here are some tips for living with MS:

• Get educated about MS: The more you understand about your condition, the more you’ll be able to advocate for yourself and make informed decisions about your care.

• Get the right support: Make sure to take advantage of the resources available to you, including support groups and mental health professionals.

• Move your body: Exercise can help to manage symptoms and reduce fatigue. Be sure to speak with your doctor before beginning any new physical activity.

• Eat a healthy diet: Eating nutrient-dense foods can help to boost your energy and manage fatigue.

• Take medication as directed: It’s important to follow the instructions of your doctor and take medications as prescribed.

• Get a good night’s sleep: Quality sleep can help to reduce fatigue and improve energy levels.

• Reduce stress: Stress can trigger symptoms of MS, so find activities that help you to relax (e.g. meditation, yoga, etc.).

• Set realistic goals: It’s important to set realistic goals and not to be too hard on yourself when goals cannot be met.

• Stay connected: Connecting with family and friends can help to lift spirits and make living with MS a bit easier.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic neurological condition that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. While it is incurable, treatments are available to relieve symptoms and help individuals to live their best life.

The most important step one can take in managing the disease is to take an active role in one’s own health by getting the education and support necessary. In addition, following a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, reducing stress and sleeping well, are all excellent strategies for managing the disease.

By understanding the potential impact MS can have on one’s life and by taking steps to manage the symptoms, affected individuals can live well with MS and maintain a good quality of life.