What exactly is Multiple Sclerosis? It’s a progressive neurological condition with no known cure in which a person’s immune system attacks the central nervous system, causing inflammation that damages myelin – the fatty coating that insulates and protects nerve fibers. Think of your nerve fibers as electrical wires and the myelin the plastic coating surrounding and protecting those wires. With MS, the immune system attacks and strips away that protecting coating, leaving the nerve fibers exposed. Just as an exposed electrical wire can spark and wreak havoc in a home, those exposed nerve fibers wreak havoc in the body and how it behaves. Much research and effort has gone into finding out what causes Multiple Sclerosis yet there are still no clear answers.
MS is an unpredictable disease that acts differently person to person. The irregularity of symptoms alone makes MS a frightening disease and having a strong support system of friends, family, and medical professionals combined with appropriate treatment can aid in coping and minimizing relapses.
MS is labeled as a “silent disease” or “invisible illness” because many people with Multiple Sclerosis look no different than a healthy person from the outside due to the fact that many MS symptoms cannot be seen (blurred vision, chronic pain, and sensory problems to name a few). Someone with MS may need accommodations despite having no mobility issues. It’s also labeled a silent disease because even during periods of remission, the illness continues to progress. Multiple Sclerosis is progressive and the goal in treating it is to slow the progression as much as possible. To stave off the inevitable decline.
How do you know if you’re having a relapse? When new symptoms crop up or existing symptoms worsen for at least 24 hours with at least 30 days since the last incident, you are having a relapse. During a relapse, immune cells that ordinarily circulate harmlessly through the blood stream attack and break down the myelin around nerve cells. There is no cure for relapses, but high doses of intravenous and/or oral steroids (Prednisone, Solu-Medrol, etc.) can help speed up recovery time by suppressing the immune system currently in attack mode.
So who gets MS? It affects so many millions of people, but is there a group more likely to be affected than others? Well, MS is more common in women than in men and there is a greater prevalence of MS in higher northern and southern latitudes. A person will most likely be diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50 years old, but of the approximately 400,000 people living with MS in the United States, about 8,000-10,000 are children or adolescents. While doctors don’t know why the body attacks the myelin, they do believe there are some factors which increase the risk of MS developing. These include a family history of MS (while the genes you’re born with may increase your risk for MS, there is no hard evidence that the condition is passed directly down through families), other autoimmune diseases, certain infections (usually viral), being Caucasian (particularly with Northern European descent), or living in temperate climates. Most likely, MS is caused by a combination of genetic factors and environmental factors. The good news is, the lifespan of a person with Multiple Sclerosis is just about as long as the lifespan of a person without the disease.