What is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is believed to be an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks the Myelin Sheath and the cells that actually produce Myelin (Oligodendrocytes). The immune system is ordinarily supposed to protect our body from disease but in the case of an autoimmune disease, the body’s immune system attacks itself. The Myelin Sheath is a layer of fat that helps insulate nerve fibers (think of an electrical cord; rubber insulation wrapped around copper wire) allowing electrical signals to travel throughout the central nervous system (CNS) which consists of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. This allows us to move our bodies, sense the world around us and even have thoughts. When myelin is damaged these signals cannot travel properly and the body stops working the way it should.
Areas of Myelin that have been damaged appear as white spots on an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) called lesions or plaques. “Multiple Sclerosis” literally means “Many Scars” which is what you see when looking at a brain scan of someone with MS; many white spots. Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic disease; currently, there is no cure, only treatments to manage the disease.
What Causes Multiple Sclerosis?
The exact cause of MS is still not known although it is believed that there may be genetic, environmental or infection-related factors. Most people with MS have other family members with the disease as well but MS is in no way contagious.
What Are the Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis?
It’s difficult to list them all as the symptoms a person will experience depend on where a lesion in the CNS may be located. Every bodily function from moving your legs to being able to remember something depends on electricity so though there is a more common set of symptoms experienced by those with MS, there is (essentially) the possibility of some sort of “malfunction” occurring in any part of the body. Because of this, MS is often called a “snowflake disease” because no two patients have the same exact set of symptoms or experience these symptoms at the same level of severity.
Common MS symptoms include visual disturbances such as optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve often resulting in blurry vision), numbness or tingling, fatigue, spasticity (a constant muscle contraction), problem walking due to gait abnormalities, balance issues, weakness, bladder issues, pain, cognitive issues, and depression.
Who Get’s Multiple Sclerosis?
According to the National MS Society, more than 2.3 million people worldwide are affected by MS. Of these people, woman tend to be about 2-3 times more likely to be affected than men. MS is generally diagnosed in those between the age of 20 and 50 though cases involving children and the elderly are not at all unheard of. Though MS occurs in many ethnic groups it is most common in Caucasians of northern European decent. MS occurs more commonly in populations further from the equator and in the United States the average individual has about a 1 in 750 chance of developing MS but different factors (such as those mentioned above) can push those odds all the way up to 25%!
What Are the Different Types of Multiple Sclerosis?
Most people are diagnosed with a relapsing-remitting form of MS but there are actually 4 main types;
RRMS – Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis
About 85% of people diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis are diagnosed with RRMS. RRMS is characterized by periods of MS attacks (relapses) followed by a partial/complete recovery (remission).
SPMS – Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis
Most individuals diagnosed with RRMS end of developing SPMS which is characterized by a steady worsening of symptoms without periods of relapses and remission.
PPMS – Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis
Only about 10% of the people diagnosed with MS are diagnosed with PPMS which is characterized by a steady worsening of symptoms from the very beginning, as in, there is never a relapsing-remitting stage.
PRMS – Progressive Relapsing Multiple Sclerosis
This is the least common form of MS and is characterized by a steady worsening of symptoms from the very beginning with occasional relapses without remission.