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An Introduction to Multiple Sclerosis

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An Introduction to Multiple Sclerosis

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Multiple sclerosis. It is a diagnosis that changes over 6,000 lives every year with more than half of diagnosed individuals ending up dying from the debilitating disease. But what exactly is it? What are the signs and symptoms? What factors put you most at risk for it? And how does the disease typically manifest itself within the patient over time?

Multiple Sclerosis

So what exactly is this illness? Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a disease that attacks the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord. Over time, your immune system attacks the myelin, or the cover on your nerve fibers, causing the communication pathway between your brain and your body to become damaged and “short circuit.”

Diagnosis

Because of the variety of symptoms with which multiple sclerosis can manifest itself, it often takes several tests and a lot of time before an official diagnosis is given. To be officially diagnosed with MS, the doctor will run an MRI scan on the patient’s body, looking to identify the size and location of any lesions. Two separate sites of inflammation or scarring from different points in time must be identified during the MRI for an MS diagnosis to be given.

Symptoms

Many patients report experiencing “pins and needles,” blurred vision, feeling like a limb is suddenly particularly heavy or stiff, unexpectedly losing control over the movement of their hand or leg, or feeling like they have a pinched nerve in their body. Because many of these early warning signs could simply be isolated incidents, few seek medical attention when they should.

A patient will often experience symptoms that affect daily movement, slowly getting more pronounced over time. Some may encounter numbness, tingling, or weakness in one side of the body, which are all known to be spine lesion symptoms. In more severe cases, patients may experience an unsteady gait or a decrease in coordination. In some patients, the disease attacks nerves focused around the eye, which can result in blurred vision, double vision, or a total loss of sight in one eye. As the disease progresses, patients may experience dramatic fatigue, tingling and numbness throughout the body, dizzy spells, and trouble speaking and walking.

Risk Factors

Several factors may contribute to or increase your likelihood of contracting MS.

One of the most popular myths is that MS is generally diagnosed in the elderly. In reality, onset typically occurs between 20 and 40 years old. Women are also two to three times more likely to develop MS than men. If any member of your family has MS, or if you are of Caucasian descent, you run a higher risk as well.

Courses of the Disease

There are four general ways that physicians see MS manifest itself and progress in patients, varying greatly in severity.

At the first symptom that could potentially be a result of MS, the patient is known to have clinically isolated syndrome. This is not a form of MS itself, but if the patient experiences a second symptom, or an MRI confirms a previous lesion, this can lead to a multiple sclerosis diagnosis.

The most common course of the disease is called relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. 90% of diagnosed patients will experience this form of the disease during the first phase of their progression. It takes several hours or days for symptoms like fatigue, tingling, blurry vision, and weakness to develop. Then they last for several days or weeks before disappearing. It can be days, weeks, months, or even years before symptoms return, but it is important to note that the patient is not cured during this period.

Some patients do not experience periods of remission and relapse during the start of their journey with MS. Instead, about 10-12% experience a consistent increase in symptoms. This steady onset of symptoms is known as primary progressive multiple sclerosis and is known to cause a gradual decrease in mobility over time.

Secondary progressive multiple sclerosis is the second stage, where there are no longer periods of remission. Symptoms are building and becoming worse with no breaks. The patient may seem steady for a while with sudden periods of decreasing health.

It is important to remember that multiple sclerosis affects every patient differently. Some may experience only slight changes to quality of life, while others may be rendered almost totally immobile over time. Because of this, it is critical to speak to a doctor to create a treatment plan that is customized to the patient’s progression and needs.

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