A prevalent chronic illness affecting over 400,000 Americans, multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system, causing continual pain, numbness in the limbs, and even paralysis in certain cases.
MS is the most frequent cause of neurological damage in young to middle-aged adults in the United States, other than trauma. The brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves are each impacted by MS, which can result in loss of muscle control, balance, and vision, as well.
Classified as an autoimmune disease like lupus, individuals with MS have a faulty immune system that attacks the body’s normal nervous system tissues, instead of foreign substances like a virus or bacteria, as a healthy immune system would. This immune mishap targets the brain and spinal cord in people with MS, the power houses of body, and two parts of the central nervous system.
Multiple sclerosis causes the immune system to destroy the protective encasement, a fatty substance called myelin, surrounding the nerves. Myelin damage (demyelination) creates a barrier in communication between the nerves, brain, and other areas of the body, as this substance is necessary for transmitting nerve impulses. Nerve impulses are messages sent to and from the brain, allowing for motions such as speaking and walking. In severe cases of MS, individuals may be unable to move freely or speak with ease, as the muscles cannot receive the messages to do so. MS can lead to deterioration of the nerves, which is irreversible. Ironically, many of us often walk or run for the cure of MS, which has yet to be discovered.
Women are two to three times more likely to get multiple sclerosis than men, and it rarely occurs prior to adolescence. People are usually at the highest risk of acquiring the disease between their teen years and age 50, and the risk decreases after that point. Is is uncertain exactly what causes MS, though researchers and doctors suggest a person’s risk is elevated with a family history of the disease, and exposure to infections as a child. In the past, there have been MS outbreaks, where groups of people have acquired the disease. Instances such as a group of people living off the coast of Denmark following World War II with MS point to environmental reasons for the disease’s presence.
It is also more common in European Americans than other racial backgrounds, and is mostly found in temperate climates such as northern Europe, Scotland, and Scandanavia. Interestingly, relocating to one of these countries before adolescence increases a person’s risk of MS. Other research suggests MS may be caused by viruses such as Epstein-Barr, varicella zoster, and the hepatitis vaccine, though insufficient evidence is available. Sex hormones may also account for a higher occurrence of MS in females than males, and could be a factor in the immune system’s malfunction.
Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis symptoms vary depending on the advancement of the disease and the individual who has it. Many symptoms are manageable with the right treatments, though they can be daunting at first. Most people who develop MS begin experiencing early symptoms between age 20 to 40, with some symptoms lessening over time, then returning. Certain symptoms persist continually, and others can come and go.
Early symptoms of MS differ in everyone, but may include:
- Lack of coordination, unsteadiness
- Tingling or pain
- Cognitive impairment (difficulty thinking clearly)
- Blurred or double vision
Later symptoms of MS vary depending on which nerve fibers are affected, including optic neuritis, a partial or total loss of vision (typically in one eye, and pain during movement); heat sensitivity, as a small rise in temperature can make a variety of symptoms reappear or worsen; dizziness; fatigue; muscle spasms; slurred speech; tremors; difficulty walking; and abnormal sensations such as burning, stabbing, tearing pains or “pins and needles.”
Depending on the particular stage of MS you are experiencing, treatment may be in the form of medications, plasma exchange treatment, physical therapy, and changes in lifestyle. Numerous medications are prescribed to treat the symptoms of MS, and other forms of treatment are also being explored, such as stem cell transplantation. Medications used in the treatment of MS may include muscle relaxants, immunosuppressants, and beta interferons, which appear to slow the progress of the disease, also lessening the frequency and seriousness of attacks. These powerful drugs also come with a variety of side effects, so be sure to ask your doctor about the potential risks.
MS attacks are usually treated with corticosteroids, which can lower the swelling that worsens drastically during a relapse of symptoms. As expected, these drugs also have plenty of side effects to make you leery of this approach, including seizures, weight gain and mood swings. Plasma exchange is a procedure in which blood is removed from the body, plasma is separated from the blood cells, and a replacement solution is added to the blood, then placed back into the bloodstream. Those who are not responding to injected steroid treatments may be referred to plasma exchange.
Lifestyle changes and other natural ways to fight symptoms of MS and improve your quality of life can be viewed here.
How Coverage Can Help
As a chronic illness, MS requires many doctor’s office visits, tests, medications, and treatments to be regulated. You may consider being part of a clinical trial to help treat your MS and be a guinea pig for new therapies (sounds questionable, but the research is important). Attempting to use all of the natural, medication-free methods possible is your best bet for avoiding massive medical bills, but in some cases you may need to start a medication to balance your immune system or normalize some other aspect of your health.
MS was once a declinable condition among health insurers, but the Affordable Care Act is opening the door to coverage for more women and men with multiple sclerosis by changing underwriting laws. With your insurance coverage, you are able to access a trusted network of providers and various facilities to get your symptoms under control for a reasonable cost. Finding a health plan to fit your needs is crucial when you have such an ongoing condition, whether you choose a public program for income reasons or a private plan.
1. WebMD. What is Multiple Sclerosis?
2. WebMD. What Causes Multiple Sclerosis?
3. Mayo Clinic. Multiple Sclerosis.
4. WebMD. Recognizing Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms.
5. Mayo Clinic. Multiple Sclerosis: Treatment and Drugs.