Spreading knowledge about MS can help us recognize the disease early, when treatment can be more effective. And a greater awareness of MS helps devote attention and funding toward finding a cure.
The disease has gained visibility in recent weeks as celebrities have opened up about their experiences with MS. Actress Selma Blair and the lead singer of Everclear, Art Alexakis, have recently come forward with their diagnoses, following in the footsteps of others with MS including Jack Osbourne, Rachel Miner, Ann Romney, and Jamie-Lynn Sigler.
It’s a chance to learn more about MS and, if it affects someone in your life, ways to support them. Here are the answers to five common questions about the disease:
1. What is MS?
There’s no bacteria or virus we can point to as a cause of MS. Instead, the disease is thought to be caused by the body’s immune system turning on itself.
Its symptoms are caused when inflammation, an immune system response, damages the protective insulation, called myelin, around nerve cells. As a result, the brain has a difficult time sending signals to move muscles and perform other tasks.
Researchers believe there is a genetic component, but unfortunately do not fully understand why the immune system mistakenly attacks its own myelin.
Because the disease attacks cells of the nervous system, neurologists are central to care for patients with MS. They’re the experts on how the disease works, including the latest medication and therapy. A partnership with a neurologist is often a valuable first step for a person with MS.
2. What are the symptoms of MS?
The first indications of MS are often what doctors call “non-specific,” meaning they’re caused by plenty of possible conditions. The disease is progressive, meaning it tends to get worse over time. Zeroing in on multiple sclerosis as a cause of a person’s symptoms often takes years.
Of the estimated 2.3 million people with MS globally, two out of three people with MS are able to walk, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Many people use an aid to walk, including Selma Blair, who used a cane to walk at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.
Some people need help because they don’t have the energy to walk long distances. Others have balance problems, as the brain struggles to send signals to the muscles.
Here are some other common symptoms:
- Numbness and tingling
- Blurred vision
- Double vision
- Poor coordination
- Problems with memory and concentration
3. How is MS diagnosed?
The tool used to detect this condition is called magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. Unlike an X-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan, this painless test does not use radiation. It uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create a picture based on the water content of our tissues.
Remember how MS eats away at the protective insulation around nerves, called myelin? That protective layer repels water, so areas damaged by MS tend to have more water. They show up as either bright white spots or dark areas depending on the scan.
4. Are there different types of MS?
Another frustrating element of MS is the way that symptoms often get worse at unpredictable times. Each person’s experience is unique, but in general there are four ways the disease presents:
- Relapsing-Remitting MS: The most common form of MS, this type includes attacks (called relapses or exacerbations) followed by remission, during which some or all symptoms disappear.
- Secondary-Progressive MS: Most people who start with the first type of MS will transition to this type. In general, a person with this type will experience steadily increasing levels of disability.
- Primary-Progressive MS: Some people with early MS do not have the relapses and remissions most commonly seen. Instead, these people often experience a slow but steady worsening of their disease.
- Progressive-Relapsing MS: As with the previous type, this form of MS tends to get worse from the beginning. There are also distinct relapses, or attacks.
Some authorities include a fifth type: clinically isolated syndrome. Defined by neurological symptoms that last for at least 24 hours, this is a precursor of MS. But when these symptoms are accompanied by lesions on a brain scan, it has a high chance of becoming MS.
5. What treatments are available?
While there is no cure for MS, new medications have come on the market in recent years, and researchers continue to pursue new avenues of therapy.
Many multiple sclerosis symptoms reduce one’s ability to control their body. The AdventHealth Sports Med and Rehab team customizes physical therapy plans to meet the unique needs of a person with MS. For example, someone with ataxia, loss of balance, may improve their coordination by using a balance vest explains AdventHealth physical therapist Amie Marie Flores Jasper, DPT, GCS, NCS.
People who are not able to walk can sometimes benefit from parallel bars or a standing frame to help them build endurance.
Enhancing a person’s balance and strength not only allows them to keep doing what they enjoy, but can reduce the chance of falls and injury. People with MS prize their independence like others, and physical therapy is one way to preserve it.
“The primary focus of physical therapy is to improve each patient's independence and decrease the level of assistance from the caregiver,” says Amie. “Some of our patients’ success stories come from the reduction of their falls, being able to walk better, participate in a wellness program or be involved in a gym.”
Treatment options offered at AdventHealth include:
- Anti-Fatigue Medication
- Beta Interferons
- IV Therapy or Infusions
- Muscle Relaxants
- Physical Therapy
Treating MS is about more than reducing symptoms. Because it often comes and goes without warning, MS can often lead to anxiety even when a person isn’t dealing with symptoms.
Moreover, the disease itself can cause changes in mood, anxiety and depression. These feelings are normal. Helping patients through it is part of AdventHealth’s whole-person care philosophy.
By combining leading-edge therapies with supportive care, AdventHealth focuses on nurturing MS patients in body, mind and spirit. To learn more about MS care at AdventHealth, visit our website.