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.
Most people who are seeking treatment for MS go through relapses and remissions. A relapse is when you experience a flare-up of symptoms. Relapses are also called “exacerbations.” Remission is a period in which you have no symptoms of the disease. A remission can last for weeks, months, or, in some cases, years. But remission does not mean you no longer have MS. Drug therapy (medication) can help put you into remission, but your immune system is still wired to attack myelin. Symptoms will likely return at some point.
The damage done to the nerves by MS also affects your critical thinking and other cognitive skills. It’s not uncommon for people with multiple sclerosis to suffer from problems with memory and finding the right words to express themselves. Lack of concentration and attention is also common. Problem-solving skills and spatial relations can also be affected by the breakdown of myelin. Cognitive inadequacies can lead to frustration, depression, and anger.
MS is labeled as a “silent disease” or “invisible disability.” Many people with MS look no different from a healthy person because some of the symptoms, such as blurred vision, sensory problems, and chronic pain, are not visible. Someone with MS may need accommodations even though they don’t have mobility issues and seem “fine.” Multiple sclerosis is also called a silent disease because even during remission the disease still progresses. This is sometimes referred to as the “silent progression” of MS.
People with MS are advised to stay cool whenever possible. Heat intolerance is a common condition and often causes an exacerbation of symptoms. You might experience a spike of symptoms from:
- hot weather/sun exposure
- hot baths or showers
- overheating from exercise
Use fans and air conditioning, cool drinks, and icy compresses to keep cool. Wear layers of lightweight clothing that are easy to remove. It’s important to note that although you have a relapse that is heat-related, hot temperatures do not cause the disease to progress more quickly.
Research published in a 2012 issue of Neurology shows a link between vitamin D and MS. The nutrient can act as a protector against MS, and may lead to fewer relapses in people who already have the disease. Sunlight triggers the production of vitamin D in your body but can also lead to heat intolerance-induced relapses. Fortified milk, orange juice, and breakfast cereals can give you a healthy dose of vitamin D. Cod liver oil, swordfish, salmon, tuna, and eggs are also natural food sources of vitamin D.
Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable disease that acts differently in each person. The irregularity of symptoms can be enough to make MS a scary diagnosis. Arming yourself with a solid support system of medical professionals, friends, and family can help you cope with this chronic illness. Appropriate treatment can minimize relapses and help you live each day to the fullest.