What You Should Know About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a serious, long-lasting medical condition. It can affect multiple parts of your body, including your brain, spinal cord and your eyes. MS occurs when your immune system incorrectly identifies your myelin sheath as a threat to your body. Normally, your myelin sheath is a fatty tissue that keeps your nerve cells safe, most notably, the nerves in your central nervous system. These are responsible for sending messages from your brain to the rest of your body. As the myelin sheath is damaged, your brain loses the ability to communicate with the rest of your body.

When your myelin sheath is damaged, your nerves become scarred. This process is known as sclerosis. The severity of the scarring determines your symptoms. In lighter cases, you may experience fatigue or blurred vision. In more severe cases, you have difficulty walking, experience severe pain or have trouble focusing or remembering specific details.

What are the causes of MS?

As of writing, there is no known cause of MS. Researchers believe there are a number of factors that contribute to MS. Some of these are environmental factors, such as living further from the equator. This is because these locations do not get as much sunlight, which means individuals living in this area receive less Vitamin D. There are additional factors as well, such as smoking and obesity, which increase your odds of developing MS.

Researchers also believe there is a genetic factor to MS. MS is not an inherited disease, but there is evidence to suggest there is a genetic risk. This means if someone in your family has MS, you are more likely to develop it.

Early Warning Signs of MS

MS is difficult to diagnose because it shares many similarities with other nerve conditions, especially in the early stages. Some of the most common warning signs to look out for are sudden periods of tingling or numbness throughout the day. Experiencing vision problems, such as your eyes becoming unfocused or developing blurred vision are also early warning signs of nerve conditions. If you experience balance problems or bouts of dizziness, as well as sudden weakness or fatigue, these may also be caused by nerve conditions.

These conditions typically develop in adults. While it is more common in adults between the ages of 30 to 40, symptoms can appear as early as 20. Symptoms are typically minor at first, often going away with rest. As you get older, the symptoms become more frequent. Many individuals with MS often have relapse period. During these periods, the symptoms become much more intense, sometimes for a short period, while other relapses may last weeks or even months. If left untreated, it is possible for MS to cause serious damage.

Diagnosing MS

If you experience any of the early warning signs of MS, tell your doctor immediately. Your doctor will not be able to diagnose whether you have MS, but he or she can recommend you to a medical specialist, known as a neurologist. Neurologists study your brain and nervous system, looking for any signs of nerve damage, including sclerosis.

There are a few tests neurologists can perform. A blood test rules out similar conditions to MS. An MRI scans your body for any signs of nerve damage. There are also a series of tests, known as evoked potentials, that detect the electrical activity between your brain and central nervous system. Neurologists may also test the fluid in your brain and spinal cord, known as cerebrospinal fluid.

MS Treatments

While there is currently no cure available for MS, there are many treatment options available to reduce the symptoms. One potential treatment is plasma exchange. During this process, the liquid portion of your blood, known as plasma, is removed from your blood cells. Your plasma is given a protein injection, then returned to your body. The injection helps strengthen your body and fight off relapses. This is especially common if your neurologist diagnoses you with MS in the early stages.

There are also several steroid treatments to reduce MS relapses. These steroids strengthen your central nervous system and help withstand the attacks from your immune system. Unfortunately, steroids do not work for all patients. In some cases, steroids also cause severe side effects, and depending on your medical history, you may not be eligible for steroid treatments at all.

If your body does not respond to steroids or plasma treatments, your neurologist may recommend interferon beta medications. These are drugs you inject under your skin or into a muscle. These injections reduce the severity of MS relapses, but require you to get blood tests to monitor your condition.

Another type of injection is glatiramer acetate. This is one of the few medications designed to stop your immune system from attacking your nervous system. Both types of injections have minor side effects, including irritation along the injection area and minor flu-like symptoms.

Finally, there are common treatments to address the damage caused by MS symptoms. If your symptoms affect your ability to walk, you may be given muscle relaxants or attend physical therapy to strengthen your body. There are also certain medications available to address the general pain, fatigue and depression associated with MS.

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