Multiple sclerosis is a lifelong autoimmune disease affecting the brain and spinal cord. Patients diagnosed with MS have highly variable neurological symptoms and disabilities. The uncertainty of the disease puts significant stress on professional, family and personal responsibilities.
Meeting the needs of patients with MS requires a multidisciplinary approach of physicians, nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists. Multiple sclerosis centers provide specialized care tailored to each patient.
The hallmark of an autoimmune disease, such as MS, is a breakdown in self-tolerance. The immune system’s role is to protect the body against bacteria, viruses and parasites. An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system identifies an area of the body as foreign.
In MS, the coating around nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord, which is called myelin, is targeted. The attacking cells damage the myelin and the nerve fibers causing scar tissue (sclerosis) to form. Recurrent attacks by the immune system leads to permanent damage and disability
Damage to the nervous system results in a variety of symptoms, some of which may include:
▪ numbness and tingling
▪ diminished vision or double vision
▪ weakness, incoordination and spasms
▪ bowel and bladder difficulties
Cognitive changes such as decreased attention, concentration and working memory are noted as the disease progresses.
MS is characterized by its unpredictability. Acute attacks, referred to as relapses, can cause any combination of symptoms. Relapses can be mild from tingling to paralysis of an extremity and can occur several times a year to once a decade depending on the severity of the disease.
The first years after diagnosis, MS patients typically recover from relapses with minimal symptoms. It is common for patients to frequently question the need for treatment. But the immune system continues to attack the brain and spinal cord. The majority of damage is not felt and only seen on brain imaging.
Over time injury accumulates leading to decreased functioning. Educating patients about the need for early and effective treatment is key to maintaining function.
MS centers have a specialized staff of doctors, nurses and therapists available to address the physical and emotional needs of these patients. Maintaining a patient’s quality of life is the primary goal. A multidisciplinary approach of medications, therapy services and educational activities are available to empower the individuals. Our goal is to help patients control the disease and feel secure to live full and active lifestyles.
Dr. James Winkley, a neurologist with Baptist Health Medical Group Neurology, is medical director of Baptist Health Multiple Sclerosis Center.