Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease where the body's immune system attacks the central nervous system which includes the brain, optic nerve and spine.
By doing so, it the disease causes injury to the protective coating that surrounds the nerves (myelin) and the axon nerve itself, resulting in numerous neurologic symptoms such as loss of muscle control, vision, balance and sensation.
The incurable disease affects an estimated 2.3 million people worldwide, including 400,000 in the United States.
While we do not know what causes MS, we believe it to be a combination of genetics and environmental factors.
A person may be predisposed to MS genetically, and may be exposed to environmental factors that cause them to have a higher chance of getting the disease.
There is accumulating evidence that environmental factors such as a vitamin D deficiency or certain viruses can have an impact on a person developing MS. However, an otherwise healthy person only has a one-tenth of one percent chance of developing the disease.
MS typically affects people between the mid-to-late 20 and mid-40s, but can occur at any age. Also, women are twice as likely as men to develop the disease.
The signs and symptoms of MS may vary from person to person, but some of the symptoms include numbness or weakness in one or more limbs, or the legs and bottom; partial or complete vision loss; pain during eye movement; double vision or blurred vision; tingling or pain in parts of the body; electric-shock sensations that occur with neck movement; tremor or lack of coordination; or slurred speech. Any of these symptoms can warrant a trip to the doctor to be examined.
People with MS can experience relapsing or progressive courses, or both.
People with MS that relapses can experience new symptoms over days or weeks that can sometimes improve and stabilize for weeks or months. Progressive MS is when patients experience a gradual onset of symptoms without relapse. People can experience both relapsing and progressive forms of the disease over the course of their life.
There is no specific test for MS, but doctors can rule out other possible conditions and diseases to make a diagnosis.
Doctors may start with a full patient history and neurologic exam verified with an MRI and laboratory tests, including a spinal fluid analysis by a lumbar puncture.
In addition to those tests, an evoked potential test may be performed, which measures how quickly the information travels from the brain to the body through nerve pathways. Slow travel could show damaged nerves.
Although the diagnosis may be unpredictable and fearful, medical advancements allow people with MS to lead relatively normal lives.
After diagnosis, treatment plans will be discussed between the patient and doctor. Treatment is designed to decrease inflammation caused by the autoimmune attack.
Disease modifying therapy is designed to reduce inflammation and slow down the progression of the disease.
Symptom modifying treatment helps alleviate the patients from the symptoms they may be experiencing.
Combining disease modifying therapy and symptom modifying therapy, such as cognitive, behavioral, physical and occupational therapy, is usually the best combination.