It’s estimated that more than 400,000 people in the United States and about 2.5 million people around the world have multiple sclerosis. What is MS, and are there things we can do to prevent it?
Multiple sclerosis, commonly known as MS, is a potentially disabling condition affecting the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). For people with MS, their immune system attacks the myelin (protective sheath) covering the nerve fibers. This causes communication issues between the brain and the rest of the body.
We asked Justine Brink, M.D., Renown Institute for Neurosciences, what else we need to know regarding this neurological condition.
Why is a diagnosis of MS so difficult?
Signs and symptoms of MS vary widely, making it a difficult disease to diagnose. The symptoms depend on the amount of nerve damage occurring and the nerves affected. Some people with MS may experience the loss of the ability to walk independently or at all, while others may have long periods of remission with no new symptoms. Symptoms of MS can include:
- Numbness or weakness in the limbs typically occurring on one side of the body
- Partial or complete loss of vision, usually in one eye at a time, often with pain during eye movement
- Prolonged double vision
- Tingling or pain in parts of the body
- Electric-shock sensations occurring with certain neck movements, especially bending the neck forward
- Tremor, lack of coordination or unsteady gait
- Slurred speech
- Problems with bowel and bladder function
There is no specific test for MS, and diagnosis often comes from ruling out other conditions with similar symptoms.
What medications and treatments are available?
There is no cure for MS, but there are treatments to help speed recovery from attacks, manage symptoms and change the course of the disease. Corticosteroids can be prescribed to reduce nerve inflammation during an MS attack. There are also several disease-modifying therapies designed to slow the progression of the disease. Other treatments include physical therapy and medications to reduce things such as fatigue, depression and pain.
Can you prevent MS?
The cause of MS is unknown and therefore cannot be prevented. However, there are some risk factors that may increase your risk of developing MS such as:
- While MS can occur at any age, it most commonly affects people between the ages of 15 and 60.
- Women are about twice as likely as men are to develop MS.
- Family history: If one of your parents or siblings has had MS, you are at higher risk of developing the disease.
- Smokers who experience symptoms that may signal MS are more likely than nonsmokers to develop a second event that confirms MS.