Nearly one million people are living with multiple sclerosis (MS) in the United States. This debilitating disease can alter the course of your life, attacking your quality of life and physical well-being. If multiple sclerosis has never touched your life, the severity and struggle caused by the disease may not be that clear.
While most people are at least aware of the disease, they may not know the specifics — what exactly MS is, how to spot it, and how to treat it. Whether you have or know someone with the disease or just want to understand the struggle of those living with MS, it’s really helpful to be informed about these core facts.
What is MS?
The simplest way to describe multiple sclerosis is when the immune system attacks your central nervous system. Specifically, MS damages myelin, which is a fatty substance that wraps around nerve fibers and increases the speed that electrical messages are shared between nerves. The immune response can also damage the cells that create myelin, as well as the nerve fibers themselves. While the exact cause of MS isn’t known, there is a belief that it may be related to genetics, gender, and even environmental factors.
As the disease progresses, messages sent throughout the central nervous system are distorted or even disrupted entirely.
Multiple sclerosis derives its name from the scar tissue (sclerosis) created by the damage done to the myelin and nerves. As the disease progresses, messages sent throughout the central nervous system are distorted or even disrupted entirely. This can lead to severe neurological and physical symptoms.
What are the Symptoms?
As mentioned, the symptoms of MS are created by the disruption of electrical signals caused by the damage done to the myelin and nerve fibers. Many of these symptoms are reflected in physical ways. For example, among the common symptoms of multiple sclerosis is difficulty walking. This comes from several issues caused by MS, such as muscle weakness and fatigue. Other times, people with multiple sclerosis may experience numbness or tingling sensations, especially in their extremities. Muscle stiffness is also not uncommon. In some cases, people feel dizziness or vertigo making walking or movement even more difficult.
MS doesn’t just make it difficult to walk, though. Many who suffer from the disease also experience bladder and bowel problems, which can make day-to-day life difficult. Others may develop inflammation in the optic nerve, which can lead to vision problems like blurred vision, trouble moving the eye, or loss of sight in that eye.
Cognitive symptoms can manifest as difficulty speaking, struggles with memory and attention, or processing information and planning.
Mental symptoms aren’t unheard of and are even common. In fact, over half of those with MS experience cognition issues as the disease progresses. This can manifest as difficulty speaking, struggles with memory and attention, or processing information and planning. Sometimes, emotional changes may develop, reflected in anxiety and stress disorders, mood swings, and irritability. Depression is one of the most common symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
How Is MS Diagnosed?
If you begin experiencing symptoms mentioned above, your doctor may order tests to see if you have multiple sclerosis. Early detection of the disease is critical, since early treatment can prevent permanent damage to your central nervous system. If your doctor does suspect MS is a possibility, you will need to undergo several procedures and tests to rule out other possibilities and diagnose MS. For example, blood tests may be required. Though they can’t detect multiple sclerosis, a blood test can be used to rule out look-alike diseases like Lyme disease.
There are three main tests used to diagnose multiple sclerosis — MRI scans, spinal taps, and evoked potentials tests.
There are three main tests used to diagnose multiple sclerosis. The first of these are MRI scans, or magnetic resonance imaging scans, which are the least invasive, but highly effective at early detection for multiple sclerosis. They use magnetic fields to create an image that can identify lesions and damage in the nervous system that may be otherwise difficult to spot. A more invasive test is a spinal tap (sometimes called a lumbar puncture). This is a procedure that removes some of your spinal fluid for testing. In the case of MS, they’ll be looking for elevated levels of certain proteins. Finally, there’s the evoked potentials test, which tests how long your brain responds to specific cues to watch for any damage multiple sclerosis may have done to your central nervous system.
What are My Treatment Options?
If you’ve been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after tests, your next step is to look into treatment. Currently, there is no cure for MS, but you can slow the progression of the illness and manage the symptoms. Generally, this will include a comprehensive approach to care. This means you’ll have a team of specialists who will try to help you slow the progression, manage the symptoms, recover from relapses, and maintain your mental health.
Currently, there is no cure for MS, but you can slow the progression of the illness and manage the symptoms.
Each case will require personalized care depending on the symptoms and their severity. For example, you may require rehabilitative care like physical therapy, if your motor functions have been greatly impaired. Another common treatment option includes a series of medications that are aimed to help chemically treat your symptoms and slow the evolution of multiple sclerosis.
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Multiple sclerosis is a life-changing diagnosis. It would be wrong to pretend otherwise. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, MS can have a severe impact on your life, which is why it’s so important to watch for the signs we’ve shared today. With an effective treatment plan developed by your doctor, multiple sclerosis can be contained and handled, so you can continue to live your life to its fullest.