Multiple sclerosis is one of the most widespread and common neurological disorders. In many cases, young adults are diagnosed with it, leaving them battling the condition for the rest of their life. At the moment, around 400,000 people in America suffer from the condition, but this is just an estimate since many diagnoses aren’t reported past the doctor’s office since therea re now requirements.
It’s common to overlook some of the earlier symptoms and signs of multiple sclerosis, also known as MS. It can also be difficult to diagnose as there are four different types of the condition.
Here’s a look at everything you could possibly need to know about MS, how it affects people, and what you can do if you or a friend are diagnosed with the condition.
What Exactly Is Multiple Sclerosis
MS is a chronic, neurological disorder that affects the whole central nervous system. It’s an autoimmune condition, which means the immune system starts attacking itself. There are various types of autoimmune conditions, but in this case, the system attacks the myelin, which is layer of protection around the nerve fibers.
When the myelin is attacked, scar tissue and inflammation occur. The nerves are directly affected, causing pain and sending mixed signals to the brain.
There are four types of MS, which can make diagnosis a little harder. The types show different symptoms and severities over time.
Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) – The first type involves remission periods and then relapses of the symptoms. During the remission period, there may be some symptoms but they can often be completely absent, making it possible for some patients to forget that they have the disease. During this time, the disease doesn’t progress either.
It’s the most common type of MS, especially at first. The type can develop into another one.
Clinically isolated syndrome – If an episode of the symptoms lasts for at least 24 hours due to demyelination within the central nervous system, the clinically isolating syndrome (CIS) type of MS can be diagnosed. There are two types of episodes that can happen: multifocal or monofocal. In the former, more than one lesion and more than one symptom will appear, while in monofocal episodes, only one lesion causes one symptom.
It’s harder to get a diagnosis of this type. In fact, more people are diagnosed with RRMS instead.
Primary-progressive MS (PPMS) – Another form of MS is known as PPMS, which is when the symptoms get worse throughout your lifetime. Some moments of remission can happen, but they are uncommon. There are some periods where the disease is not active, but symptoms are still often noted.
Secondary-progressive MS (SPMS) – Finally, you may be diagnosed with secondary-progressive, which includes the most noticeable relapses. Someone with this condition can develop a disability or have poor functioning of their voice, muscles, and more because of it.
Why Do People Develop MS?
There are many questions about the development of the disease. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40, with women two-three times more likely than men to receive a diagnosis. The number of women compared to men grows year upon year.
Most people with MS are Caucasians and have European ancestry. In fact, people closer to the equator are less likely to get a diagnosis, making researchers believe that vitamin D and sunlight are linked to the condition. Those who move country before the age of 15 are also more likely to develop it, possibly due to the change in climate.
That being said, there is nothing you’ve done to develop the condition. It’s the body’s immune system failing to work properly. Rather than just attacking diseases and illnesses, it attacks the myelin in the body.
There are some researchers looking for a hereditary link, but so far this isn’t a conclusive reason for developing it. It can increase the chances of developing it, though. So far, scientists have identified certain genes and mutations that are more likely to see an MS diagnosis later in life.
Most researchers believe that environmental triggers are the reason. Toxins or viruses can lead to the immune system developing a sort of bug or condition that leads to it attacking the healthy body. Because there is little understood about the disease, it’s hard to tell if someone is going to develop it. This also makes developing a cure almost impossible.
Looking Out for the Early Signs and Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis
Some people will develop all their symptoms at the same time. This can lead to an instant diagnosis of the condition. However, there are some people who will experience mild symptoms one at a time. The symptoms can be so mild that they are ignored or dismissed quickly, especially if you’re going through a traumatic time or a period of stress.
The most common early signs of the condition include:
- Strange sensations
- Poor balance
- Vision problems
The central nervous system is directly affected, which can lead to nerves not getting the right messages or sensations. The arms and legs can become tingly. The face may feel a little numb in places. It’s almost like you have a pins and needles sensation or a feeling of your foot falling asleep, like you’ve slept on part of your body. However, the sensations occur for what seems like no apparent reason.
As for the balance, this is often due to weakness in the muscles. It can also be linked to the vision problems. Many patients share how they had trouble doing physical activity or just walking.
The vision can become blurry or doubled. You can also have some partial loss or eye pain.
In many cases, the initial symptoms can appear and then just disappear for a while. You’re left assuming they were nothing and just your body acting strangely. Some patients will go years between initial flare-ups, as their MS disease continues to get worse.
What makes it hard for doctors is that the symptoms can also be signs of other conditions. More often than not, other medical conditions are misdiagnosed at first, allowing the MS to get worse, rather than finding ways to deal with it.
The Furthering Symptoms of MS
As the condition progresses, the symptoms get worse. These symptoms will differ from person to person, both in the type of symptoms and the severity. In some cases, the symptoms will develop on a weekly basis, but others will find their severity and types develop on a yearly basis.
Difficulty walking and fatigue are the two most common noticeable symptoms. In fact, around 80% of patients say they have fatigue issues, and it can make it difficult to perform normal everyday tasks. Walking becomes a problem just to numbness and balancing problems.
The nerves can also lead to some muscle weaknesses, spasms, and pain. These make walking hard and can also lead to some issues like speech problems, tremors, and chronic pain. Many patients also experience cognitive issues, including memory and concentration problems. This is often due to the nerves sending the wrong signals up to the brain.
Getting a Diagnosis for MS
As mentioned, doctors can sometimes find it difficult to diagnose the condition. This is partially due to the symptoms mimicking other problems and also because the severity can be different between patients. However, if doctors suspect MS, they can go through various exams and tests to help determine the problem.
Diagnostic testing includes an MRI, spinal tap, stimulating nerve pathways, and blood tests. The type you’ll get will depend on your symptoms and your doctor’s thoughts about the disease.
MRIs are the most commonly used tests, because they can help to find if there are lesions and scar tissue around the nerves. A contrast dye is used to detective any active or inactive lesions around the spinal cord and brain.
Nerve stimulation can help to determine nerves that are affected. The electrical activity in the brain is tested to see how nerves reaction and the messages they send. As for spinal taps, they help doctors to determine if there are problems within the spinal fluid. The spinal tap is also useful for ruling out other conditions, especially infectious diseases.
Finally, blood tests are used for ruling out other conditions. Remember that some of the symptoms mimic other conditions. Doctors need to rule these out to avoid misdiagnosing.
Some conditions with similar symptoms include Sjorgren’s syndrome, Lyme disease, and lupus.
Is There a Cure for Multiple Sclerosis?
One of the biggest downsides of the condition is that there’s no cure for it. However, that doesn’t mean you just have to accept the diagnosis and your life has definitely not come to an end. People can live for decades with the condition through treatment options that have been developed.
The exact type of treatments will depend on the type of MS you’re diagnosed with. Those with RRMS can opt for drugs that will modify the disease. They can help create more remission periods, preventing the disease from getting worse and slowing down the total progression. These drugs are self-injectable, which means there’s no need for constant trips to the doctor’s office.
Beta interferons and glatiramer are the most common treatments given. These include:
There are also some oral medications and intravenous infusion medications available. Your doctor will discuss all the options and the side effects. Depending on the stage of your disease and all the symptoms you experience, you may find your doctor recommends a particular type of drug.
Unfortunately, these are drugs for the progressive types of MS. Your doctor will usually prescribe corticosteroids to help treat your relapses and manage the progression of the disease.
Not all drugs are used to prevent progression. They help to improve your symptoms to improve the quality of your life. Some of these drugs can also be mixed with the disease modifying drugs mentioned to help create a flexible treatment to improve your mental health while dealing with the disease.
The aim is to help you live with the disease. It is possible and plenty of patients mange it. In fact, 10-15% of patients will only have rare attacks of the disease and will see minimal progression after 10 years. This can be referred to as “benign MS,” although it’s not an official medical diagnosis.
Again the ability to live with the disease trouble free will depend on the type. The least progressive is the RRMS, especially with the use of modification drugs. Those with the progressive type can find their symptoms get worse much quicker, and men can often find the disease progresses faster than their female counterparts. Those who get a diagnosis when they’re older also have a higher relapse and progression rate.
After around 15 years, about 50% of patients will need the use of a cane or other walking assistance. After 20 years, less than 15% need custodial care. In fact, 60% can still find they live life relatively normally.
The progression of the disease does change over the course of your lifetime though. What used to be a slow progressing condition can suddenly change to a fast progression without any warning signs. Researchers are still trying to understand this.
In the majority of cases, MS isn’t a fatal condition. While life can be a little more of a struggle, it’s still possible to live life as long as you likely would have without it.
Using Diet and Natural Methods of Manage the Symptoms
For most people diagnosed with MS, the focus is on living with it. People need to find ways to manage their symptoms and improve their functionality. Patients will develop their own coping strategies to deal with individuals struggles, whether that’s through groups support, having a single person to talk to, or through natural remedies.
A well-balanced diet can be helpful to manage the condition. You’ll need to reduce the amount of empty calories you eat, which means focusing on a healthy diet full of nutritious food. A plant-based diet that cuts out high fatty foods and simple carbs is considered the best option. You can keep the natural inflammation in the body to a minimum, helping to prevent relapses of the condition.
Regular exercise is also highly recommended. Of course, the type of exercise you do will be affected by your symptoms and the condition. Some of the most commonly suggested options include tai chi and yoga. They are stationary and can help to improve the core strength and balance. Opt for yoga designed for those with MS, where you use more supportive structures; Pilates can be an excellent alternative.
Music therapy and other complementary sciences are also highly recommended. They can help deal with the mental health side effects of the condition. Some patients will go through hypnotherapy or even seek out massage therapists. Meditation or acupuncture can also be highly beneficial.
If you choose to make any changes to your lifestyle or your diet, make sure you talk to your doctor. This is the person who will help support your overall health and make sure your avoid anything that could cause injury due to your symptoms.
Living with Multiple Sclerosis
While MS can be a devastating diagnosis, it is something you can live with. Patients around the world are managing it. While some will need support and a carer, there are plenty of others who continue to remain self-managing. This is a disease that can lead to being registered disabled, but it doesn’t have to completely overshadow your life.
Consider your diet and take on the advice from doctors. Support groups can help you manage your symptoms and improve your lifestyle to help encourage more remission periods. The main thing to do is be flexible with your life. Talk to your doctor about the right medication for both your condition and you personally.