Multiple sclerosis, also known as MS, is one of the most diseases affecting the nervous system. According to the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation (MSIF), MS is a condition that occurs when the fatty outer layer protecting the nerve fibers, called myelin, is damaged. This process is called demyelination (as seen in image in top right hand corner), which is an inflammatory condition affecting the speed with which impulses from the brain may travel to the rest of the body. Demyelination causes scars on the nerves in the brain and spinal cord (multiple sclerosis literally means “many scars”).
The central nervous system is responsible for communicating things between the brain and the rest of the body. In the case of MS, these messages are interrupted. The brain is then no longer able to send messages to the body. It is this precise breakdown in communication that causes the symptoms of MS.
Symptoms can include:
- Blurring of vision
- Involuntary rapid eye movement
- Loss of muscle control/muscle weakness (especially in the legs)
- Numbness (loss of sensation)
- Lack of coordination
MS is an autoimmune disease, because it is the patient’s own immune system – designed to fight bacteria and intruders from the outside – that deteriorates the myelin. While the nerves can and do rebuild myelin, the process is not fast enough to keep up with the deterioration. The MSIF estimates 2.5 million people across the globe are affected by this disease. It is a progressive disease with no cure, and affects women more than men (by a ration of 2:3).
What causes this disease is still relatively unknown. What is clear is that MS is an autoimmune disease, in which the body attacks itself. One theory researchers have been working on is that MS enters the body as a virus; not necessarily as an identifiable MS virus, but possibly through herpes or the measles, that could act as a trigger. Scientists assume that the virus is then fought by the body’s white blood cells, which enter the brain, and from there the MS virus could cause for other elements of the immune system to begin breaking down the myelin.
There is no single definite test that can diagnose MS; a variety of tests are necessary, so that the doctor may cancel out other diseases. Generally the tests conducted are:
- MRI scans – the images taken inside the body can clearly display damaged areas of the brain and the spinal cord.
- Spinal tap – this procedure is designed to extricate fluid from the spinal cord so that it may be tested for antibodies and other matter that would suggest an abnormal autoimmune response (meaning the body is attacking itself), which would indicate MS
- Evoked Potential Tests – these tests are designed to measure electric activity in the brain through impulses targeting specific nerves. These usually include VEP (visual invoked potentials), BAEP (brainstorm auditory evoked potentials) and SEP (sensory evoked potentials).
Please click here to learn more about the diagnosis of MS.
There are many different types of treatments for MS. One of the basic treatments includes taking steroids, which have an anti-inflammatory effect, therefore slowing the process of demyelination and allowing the body to rebuild myelin more rapidly.
There is also medication that may be prescribed in order to “alter the course of MS”, as professionals call it. According to MSIF, these medications have some effect on the frequency and severity of exacerbations and the number of lesions. The FDA, much to the pleasure of MS sufferers, has just approved new medications, including Ampyra, for use in the United States.
Further treatments conducted are usually symptom-specific, for example specific therapies for muscle spasms or other symptoms. More and more MS patients are turning to acupuncture, especially to decrease the pain.
There are several different types of MS, including:
- Relapsing-Remitting MS
- Primary Progressive MS
- Secondary Progressive MS
- Progressive relapsing MS
Please click here read more about these types of MS, and to learn about the course of the disease, including how it progresses.
Celebrities who have been diagnosed with MS include comedic legend Richard Pryor and author Michael Crichton.
Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MS_Demyelinisation_CD68_10xv2.jpg; Author: Marvin 101
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Myelinated_neuron.jpg; Author: roadnottaken