What causes MS, and what are its triggers and outcomes? A Renown expert weighs in on this autoimmune disease and other multiple sclerosis facts.
Our bodies are amazing, intuitive machines, equipped with strong immune systems to ward off disease and stay healthy. But there are times when an individual’s own immune system does the opposite — it turns on the body and attacks its systems and organs.
These illnesses are known as autoimmune diseases, and multiple sclerosis (MS) falls into this category.
MS attacks tissue in the brain and spinal cord causing inflammation and demyelination. This occurs when the protective covering of nerve fibers in the brain and/or spinal cord sustain damage and slow or even stop nerve conduction. The areas can heal, but often scar tissue is left behind in multiple locations throughout the central nervous system, which is called sclerosis. When the tissue damage is severe, cell death can lead to permanent nervous system disability.
Symptoms of MS
Patients’ symptoms vary depending on where the inflammation and subsequent sclerosis happens. If the brain can’t send signals, nerves can’t do their job — allowing you to move your body and feel. All individuals diagnosed with MS will experience some level of cognitive or motor fatigue, which can make everyday tasks challenging and even exhausting. They may also experience difficulties with muscle control, vision and balance.
Currently, we know MS is a result of a genetic susceptibility triggered by environmental factors — anything from a viral infection to other immune system irritants such as poor diet, smoking, low vitamin D levels or severe allergy. MS is more common in women and among people living farther from the equator with less daily sun exposure.
Viral infections, such as the Epstein-Barr virus or the human herpesvirus 6, are also known to trigger or cause relapses of MS. These viruses and others impede immune system function. Clear answers are not available as to why, but scientists continue to study the link between viruses and MS.
The exact cause of MS is variable among patients, as is the clinical course of the disease. Almost any possible symptom could be related to MS but the most common are fatigue, changes in vision, sensory change, muscle spasms and weakness, cognitive decline, depression, bowel or bladder problems, and balance problems. Patients also have difficulty focusing and remembering. Typically symptoms appear between the ages of 20 and 40, and there is an increased risk in people who smoke or are obese. Children can develop MS, but it is rare until after puberty.
Most individuals suffer from attacks, or relapses, when the condition worsens. And for many individuals, these attacks are followed by recovery periods where symptoms tend to improve. For others, the disease continues to worsen over time.
Diagnosis and Relieving Symptoms
If an individual is experiencing new symptoms for which they have no explanation, it’s a good idea to consult a healthcare provider. Identifying MS early in the course of the disease, receiving proper treatment and managing any lifestyle triggers can slow the progression of the disease and prevent disability.
A healthy diet, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and taking medications and vitamin supplements can all help ease symptoms, possibly slow the disease and may help prevent attacks. Physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, psychotherapy and support groups can also ease stress. As noted previously, sun exposure is beneficial — vitamin D from sunlight can strengthen the immune system and protect against MS.
MS patients are like snowflakes — no two are exactly alike. So consult with your doctor to find the treatment that works best for you.
This story was also published in the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Health Source on February 28, 2016.