Dispelling the misconceptions about multiple sclerosis

Contributing columnistSeptember 7, 2013 

With so many advances in medicine in the past 20 years, it's hard to believe that there were no FDA-approved medications available for multiple sclerosis before 1993.

Today, there are 10 drugs on the market that effectively manage the disease, with several more in development and nearing the approval stage.

MS is a chronic, sometimes debilitating condition in which an individual's own immune system attacks the myelin, the protective insulation around the nerves of the central nervous system.

There is no cure for MS, and there is no single test that can detect the disease. Some people might have complaints about vision changes, numbness, tingling, difficulty with walking and coordination, speech or swallowing issues. An abnormal MRI of the brain or spinal cord typically will prompt a referral to a neurologist.

More than 2.1 million people worldwide are affected by MS. While Kentucky does not have a higher rate of MS than some of our northern states, one of our greatest challenges is access to high quality care, especially in rural communities.

The most common symptoms of the disease are numbness in the limbs, problems with balance and blurred vision. But the severity and specific symptoms vary from person to person. No two cases of MS look alike.

As a nurse navigator helping MS patients and their families, I have come across countless misconceptions about the disease. One misconception is that those with MS have much shorter life expectancies. In fact, MS patients are expected to live only one to three years less than those who do not have the disease.

About 85 percent of patients diagnosed with MS have the relapsing-remitting form of the condition, which is defined by a series of recurring, acute "attacks" of symptoms followed by recovery. Each attack on the immune system increases the risk of permanent damage and loss of function. In many cases, this type of MS can be successfully managed through a variety of disease modification therapies that prevent the number of relapses and delay the progression of the disease. These therapies are generally taken on a long-term basis, with the goal of "resetting" the immune system, making it more resistant to the disease.

Other types of MS are progressive, getting worse over time. These types can be more difficult to treat, but also can be managed through an array of drug infusion therapies.

As to the causes of the disease, research is ongoing, and the exact cause has yet to be identified. Today, it's believed that MS is most likely caused by a perfect storm that includes hereditary factors, an infectious trigger such as pneumonia and your environment.

The earlier the disease is detected, the easier it is to manage. If you've experience a bout of blurred vision, weak legs or slurred speech but your symptoms abated, don't wait for them to come back before you get checked. Talk to your primary care provider or other trusted health care professional about an initial screening to rule out MS.

Nancy Heckler is a nurse navigator for the KentuckyOne Health Multiple Sclerosis Center and Saint Joseph Neurology Associates.Nancy Heckler is a nurse navigator for the KentuckyOne Health Multiple Sclerosis Center and Saint Joseph Neurology Associates.

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