Whats Is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system. MS is a disease that usually, but not always, results in permanent disability.
In the central nervous system, a substance called myelin covers the nerves. Myelin protects the nerves. It also helps to send messages between the brain and spinal cord and other parts of the body. In MS, inflammation damages the myelin. Over time, the nerves become damaged as well. This damage causes many areas of scarring called sclerosis. These scars slow down or block the ability of the nerves to send messages. Since the central nervous system controls body functions and sensations, people with MS can have many different problems. These problems include difficulty walking or speaking, vision disturbances, and numbness or tingling of the arms and legs.
There are several types of MS. These include:
Symptoms of this type are fairly mild. They do not get worse and they do not lead to permanent disability. This type of MS is found in 10-15% of people who have been diagnosed with the disease.
Causes a sudden outbreak of symptoms that occurs every one to three years. The symptoms last for a few weeks or months and then slowly go away. Symptoms may not appear again for years. However, they may get worse each time they return. About 85% of persons with MS have this type at the time they are diagnosed.
Causes rapid decline of the client’s condition. After the symptoms first appear, the disease progresses steadily without periods of relief from symptoms (remission). About 15% to 20% of people with MS begin with this form of the disease.
A stage of constant worsening (deterioration) of the client’s condition. This type occurs after the client has had relapsing-remitting MS for a number of years.
A rare type of MS. It occurs in less than five percent of people who have the disease. The client’s condition worsens constantly. He/she also has sudden episodes of new symptoms or worsening of symptoms that already exist.
How Common Is Multiple Sclerosis?
MS is the most common cause of disability affecting the brain and spinal cord in young adults. About half of MS patients are unable to walk without help 15 years after being diagnosed. However, about 70% of people with MS are able to continue to lead active, productive lives with the help of treatment.
The disease affects over 2.5 million people throughout the world. It is most common among people who live in northern climates, in cities (urban areas), and those who earn a fairly high income (higher socioeconomic groups). MS is twice as common in women than it is in men. It usually strikes people between the ages of 20 and 40.
MS is very common in North America. Canadians have one of the highest rates of MS in the world. Every day in Canada three more people are diagnosed with this disease. In the United States, MS affects as many as 350,000 people.
Symptoms of MS
In most cases, vision problems or changes in sensation are the first signs that something might be wrong. The person may complain of blurred or double vision. A burning sensation, a feeling of tingling (“pins and needles”), or numbness in the arms or legs may occur.
Other common symptoms include the following:Muscle problems
These include weakness, difficulty walking, loss of balance, difficulty coordinating movements, trembling, muscle spasms, and not being able to move arms or legs.
The person may complain of having an urgent need to go the bathroom. Frequent visits to the bathroom may be needed. The person may not be able to control the need to pass urine (incontinent). Bladder infections are common.
The person may complain of being constipated. He may not be able to control having bowel movements (incontinent).
The person may report feeling very, very tired. People sometimes feel so tired that they cannot perform their normal daily activities. This feeling of exhaustion can occur at any time of the day without warning.
Other symptoms include difficulty speaking or trouble swallowing. The person may be very irritable. Sometimes people have “mood swings.” This means that they may be very depressed and sad and then suddenly, without reason, become very happy. People with MS are sometimes not able to control their emotions.
Treatment for MS
There is no cure for MS. The goals of treatment are to: 1) shorten the length of time symptoms last, and 2) reduce, as much as possible, the damage done to the person’s functioning as a result of severe reappearance of symptoms (exacerbations).
For some people, the signs and symptoms of MS are mild and do not occur very often. These people may only need to be observed. Some will benefit from counseling to learn how to deal with a chronic disease. In others, symptoms occur more often. The disease is more severe and debilitating. These people may need treatment to reduce the effects of the disease.
Read more about MS in our Dr Guide book, All About Multiple Sclerosis.