What is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis or MS is a condition that affects the nerves in the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the central nervous system. The cause is thought to be due to an abnormality in the functioning of the immune system but the exact mechanism is still uncertain. It is a chronic, progressive disease, and as yet, there is no cure.
A fatty substance known as myelin surrounds our nerve fibers (axons), and acts as an insulator. Myelin helps these nerve fibers to transmit signals from the central nervous system to other parts of the body. When myelin is damaged, it can become inflamed, and the result is the formation of hardened scar tissue (sclerosis), or it can be ‘removed’ (demyelination).
The body’s own immune cells attack the nervous system, and the spinal cord, brain and optic nerves are all affected – this causes the nerve impulses to slow down. Symptoms of multiple sclerosis vary because different nerves are affected at different times. People suffering from multiple sclerosis may experience episodes of vision loss, weakness in their muscles, numbness and pain.
Sometimes these attacks worsen (exacerbate), improve (remission), recur (relapse) or develop in other areas of the body. Attacks can last days, weeks or months, recurring or showing no symptoms at all. Multiple sclerosis tends to have a slow and insidious onset and can progress silently, without you even being aware that you may have the disease until the damage is quite severe and more obvious symptoms are noted.
Multiple sclerosis affects women more than men, particularly Caucasians. The disease typically begins between the ages 20 and 40, but it may also develop in children and the elderly. People with a family history of MS are more susceptible to developing this disease. MS is also more likely to occur in certain geographical areas such as the United States where over 400,000 people are affected, northern Europe, southern Australia and New Zealand.
People suffering from MS have to deal with many obstacles, as well as the uncertainty of the outcome of the disease. If symptoms are detected early, treatment can slow the progress of this disease. Although multiple sclerosis cannot be cured, there are various treatments that can help to ease the symptoms. There are also many techniques and lifestyle changes to help you manage this disease so that those with MS can lead a full and productive life.
Various Types of Multiple Sclerosis
Relapsing-remitting MS: During certain periods, symptoms can worsen (exacerbations) with increased frequency, as well as be reduced (remission).
Secondary progressive MS: In its early stages, this type of MS is similar to relapsing-remitting MS with relapses and remissions. It eventually progresses to secondary progressive MS when loss of physical and cognitive functions occurs.
Primary progressive MS: There are hardly any relapses occurring in this type of MS, but over a period of years, there is loss of physical and cognitive functions.
Symptoms may include:
- Vision abnormalities: These may include blurred vision, double vision, and inflammation of the optic nerve (called optic neuritis), involuntary eye movement or eye pain
- Muscle weakness: There may be loss of muscle strength in the arms and legs which can result in paralysis
- Paresthesia: Loss or alteration in feeling or sensation, most noticeably in the limbs. This is often one of the earliest signs of MS
- Bladder and bowel dysfunction: People with multiple sclerosis often have problems with bladder and bowel control such as urgency to urinate, incontinence or constipation
- Balance and coordination abnormalities: Multiple sclerosis can result in poor balance, uncoordinated movements, tremors, speech problems, dizziness or vertigo
- Cognitive dysfunction: People with multiple sclerosis may have memory problems, trouble concentrating and reasoning.
- Behavioral changes: Many people experience mood swings, depression or feelings of hopelessness
- Pain: Various types of pain can occur during multiple sclerosis such as facial numbness, burning pain in the arms, legs or back and muscle pain
- Sexual dysfunction: Multiple sclerosis can also affect sexual activity such as erectile dysfunction, painful intercourse or a loss of sexual sensitivity
- Fatigue: Many people experience fatigue, they tire easily and there is a decrease in energy levels