A number of us have heard of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), but don’t know what it is or how it impacts the body. Simply put, MS is a fairly unpredictable disease that can have devastating consequences for a person’s wellbeing and daily life. As with many other illnesses, a thorough understanding of MS can help you protect and prepare yourself and your loved ones against this often baffling disease.
An Unusual Illness
Multiple sclerosis doesn’t fit the mold of most other familiar illnesses, in that the body’s own immune system is the culprit. The onset of MS occurs when the immune system attacks the myelin, the fatty insulation that surrounds the brain’s nerve fibers, often times leaving behind scars. MS is actually named for this scar tissue, which is medically referred to as sclerosis. During these attacks, the nerve fibers themselves may sustain significant damage, which can disrupt their ability to transmit crucial messages between the brain and spinal cord. Essentially, the body’s nervous system is besieged by its own defenses.
A patient’s MS symptoms depend on the level of damage he or she has received from the sclerosis scar tissue. Symptoms might be relatively mild and somewhat tolerable, such as arm or leg numbness. In more serious cases, however, the effects of MS can be far more onerous and oppressive; patients with more advanced cases of MS can experience loss of vision and the inability to speak or walk. MS can vary widely in its severity, making it difficult for doctors to predict the symptoms a patient will experience. In general, patients usually display the following range of symptoms to varying degrees:
- Walking, Balance and Coordination Problems
- Bladder Dysfunction
- Bowel Dysfunction
- Vision Problems
- Dizziness and Vertigo
- Sexual Dysfunction
- Cognitive Dysfunction
- Emotional Changes
Less common MS symptoms include speech disorders, swallowing problems, headache, hearing loss, seizures, tremors, breathing problems, and itching.
Development and Progression of MS
As if the disease weren’t unpredictable enough, MS develops in one of four distinct forms. These versions of MS, also called disease courses, each exhibit distinct characteristics relating to disease progression and intensity.
Relapse-Remitting MS – This disease course is by far the most common form of MS, accounting for 85% of all MS patients. Generally, a person with relapse-remitting MS will experience a rash of increasingly severe symptoms, followed by recovery periods, in which the MS is considered to be in remission. During this time, a patient should not experience worsening MS symptoms. This grace period is then followed by another batch of MS outbreaks, as the relapse-recovery cycle begins anew. The intensity of these outbreaks increases at a relatively steady rate.
Primary-Progressive MS – Primary-Progressive MS is an especially devastating form of MS, as patients experience increasingly potent symptoms with no periods of relief or remission. The rate of disease progression may waver somewhat, as a patient’s condition may stabilize for brief periods of time. Roughly one-tenth of MS patients fall into this category.
Secondary-Progressive MS – Patients with this form of MS initially experience the relapse-remitting form of MS. As time passes, the severity of their MS increases at a faster and faster pace. They may also stop experiencing flare-ups, recoveries and plateaus in disease intensity. Until recently, about half of all relapse-remitting MS patients developed secondary-progressive MS. Fortunately, advances in MS medication have cut this number dramatically.
Progressive-Relapsing MS – This is the rarest form of MS, as it afflicts only 5% of MS patients. However, progressive-relapsing MS also doubles as the most dangerous version of all MS disease courses. Patients with this type of MS not only experience increasingly worse symptoms from the onset of their condition, but also are subject to damaging flare-ups, which are not always followed by recovery periods. Unlike other forms of MS, patients with progressive-relapsing MS never see their condition fully go into remission.
Like too many other diseases, a cure for MS remains elusive. Given this lack of a cure, doctors usually focus on treating the symptoms of MS, with some medications aimed at treating the disease itself. In addition to medications, patients often times use physical therapy to help their bodies recover from MS. Below are additional details about the medications used to treat multiple sclerosis, as well as MS attacks and flare-ups. Please note to consult with your doctor before deciding upon any MS treatments.
Treatments for MS Attacks/Flare-ups
Corticosteroids – This intravenous medication is used to heal inflamed nerve tissue, thereby shortening the length of MS flare-ups. The effectiveness of this treatment is questionable, so prolonged use of corticosteroids is not recommended. Corticosteroids can cause side effects, such as high blood pressure and osteoporosis.
Plasma exchange – A plasma exchange may seem far fetched, but it is very much a medical reality. During a plasma exchange, a patient has his or her blood extracted, and placed in a machine that separates blood cells from blood plasma. The blood cells are mixed with a replacement solution, and then inserted back into the body. Many patients who fail to respond to Corticosteroids show much better results upon receiving a plasma exchange. Unfortunately, plasma exchanges have failed to show any effective results on patients who have suffered from MS symptoms for more than three months.
Treatments to Alter the Disease Course of MS
Beta Interferons – Doctors are only allowed to administer this treatment to patients who have relapsing forms of MS. They can be administered under the skin or through muscle tissue.
Glatiramer – Doctors use this daily intravenous medication to help shield the myelin from attack by the immune system. This medication is considered a viable alternative to beta interferons, and is used to treat flare-up for patients with relapse-remitting MS.
Natalizumab – This medication is injected into a patient once per month. Natalizumab blocks immune cells from leaving the bloodstream, thus blunting the immune system’s attack on the myelin. This medication is only used if other options fail to effectively treat a patient’s MS, as Natalizumab can increase the risks of contracting a serious brain infection.
Mitoxantrone – Mitoxantrone is prescribed to patients with strong cases of relapse-remitting or secondary progressive MS. Doctor opt for this treatment should both beta interferons and glatiramer prove unsuccessful, and if patients display worsening MS attacks and inflammation. Mitoxantrone is administered through an IV every three months.
MS Prevention through Diet
Research has suggested that healthy amounts of Vitamin D and Omega 3 fatty acids can reduce your risk of MS. Sunlight exposure provides the best option for getting vitamin D, though this may prove difficult in the winter months. Fortunately, foods such as salmon, mackerel and tuna canned in water are also excellent sources of vitamin D. Omega 3 fatty acids are heavily concentrated in mackerel, herring and sardines. It is important to note that Omega 6 fatty acids, found in beef and pork, may increase MS inflammation.
Having a low fat diet can also help starve off multiple sclerosis. Norwegian research has suggested that a daily diet of 15g of saturated fat and 20 to 50 grams of unsaturated can significantly decrease the odds of developing MS. You should also avoid foods that aggravate food allergies. Since it’s very possible to be unknowingly allergic to foods, you may find it useful to ask your doctor about food allergy testing.
MS can be a terrible hardship for an afflicted patient and his or her loved ones. Though there is no cure for MS, there are several practical treatment methods and dietary options that may prevent the disease. Through careful research and knowledge, you can give yourself a better chance of fending off MS and keeping your health intact.