Multiple Sclerosis FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions
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Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disease, which means it affects your nerves. A substance called myelin wraps around your nerves to protect them. MS is the breakdown of myelin as your body attacks itself. The word “sclerosis” refers to the scar tissue or lesions that appear as the myelin is damaged. The unprotected nerves can’t function as they would with normal, healthy myelin. The damaged nerves produce a wide range of symptoms that vary in severity
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic condition, because there is not yet a cure for the disease. It’s important to know that for the vast majority of people who have MS, the disease is not fatal. Most of the 2 million people worldwide with MS have a normal life expectancy. A rare few may have complications so severe that their life is shortened. MS symptoms can be managed and controlled with medications and lifestyle adjustments.
The list of possible MS symptoms is long. It includes numbness and tingling, vision problems, balance and mobility issues, and slurred speech. There is no such thing as a “typical” symptom of MS because each person experiences the disease differently. The same type of symptoms may come and go frequently, or you may regain a lost function (bladder control, for example) after a period of time. The unpredictable pattern of symptoms has to do with which nerves your immune system attacks at any given time.
Doctors still don’t understand what causes multiple sclerosis, but there are interesting data that suggest that genetics, a person’s environment, and possibly even a virus may play a role.
Researchers believe that MS may be inherited (passed on from parents to children). First, second and third degree relatives of people with MS are at increased risk of developing the disease. Siblings of an affected person have a 2%-5% risk of developing MS.
Some scientists theorize that MS develops because a person is born with a genetic predisposition to react to some environmental agent, which, upon exposure, triggers an autoimmune response.
In addition, some studies have suggested that many viruses such as measles, herpes, and the flu viruses may be associated with MS. To date, however, this connection has not been scientifically proven.
Multiple sclerosis is not considered a fatal or contagious inherited disease. As noted above, there may be a familial predisposition to developing MS. Prevalence in families of individuals with MS is somewhat higher than in the general population.
Unfortunately, there is not a cure for multiple sclerosis, but there are several drugs that may slow down the progression of the disease. There are also various treatments available that can help people with MS manage their symptoms and live a productive and fulfilling life.
Most people with multiple sclerosis usually get around without assistance; however, there may be a time when you will need some type of assistance. Approximately 25% of people with MS will eventually need a wheelchair. There may be a time when you will need to use some type of other walking aide like a cane or walker.
Choosing to begin therapy for multiple sclerosis can be a difficult decision to make; learning about your treatment options and discussing them with your doctor is the first step in deciding what treatment to begin. Some other factors to consider are effectiveness, side effects, your current lifestyle, and how the therapy is given. Your doctor will be able to provide you with a wide variety of educational materials that describe the different therapies.
Optic neuritis is the inflammation of the optic nerve, the nerve located in the back of the eye that transmits light and visual images to the brain. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, 55% of people with MS will have an episode of optic neuritis. Frequently, it’s the first symptom of the disease. Although having optic neuritis is very suggestive of MS, it does not automatically mean that a person has or will get MS. A positive MRI is associated with the highest risk. Approximately 40% of people with optic neuritis will develop MS.
The symptoms of optic neuritis are the acute onset of any of the following:
- Pain in the eye
- Blurred vision
- Graying of vision
- Blindness in one eye
It’s rare that both eyes are affected simultaneously. Loss of vision tends to worsen over the course of a few days before getting better. This usually takes about four to 12 weeks. Treatment may include intravenous and/or oral steroids to control the inflammation.