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Break It Down: Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a condition that affects approximately 400,000 Americans. Thankfully, the majority of people with MS have the same life expectancy as persons without the condition. However, they can have a variety of manifestations that impact their quality of life.

MS is an autoimmune disorder that affects the central nervous system, including the brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord.

Multiple sclerosis causes an attack on myelin, a substance that enables signal transmission along the nerves. Scar tissue creates gaps in functional myelin. This affects how messages are transmitted within the brain or along the nerves.

This scarring, or sclerosis, can manifest in different ways, and these effects can change over time, so there may not be a constant pattern of symptoms with MS. The most common symptoms are numbness and tingling in hands and feet, vision problems, poor balance, limited mobility, lack of concentration, and slurred speech.

These symptoms often go through periods of relapse or remissions. Sometimes there aren’t typical outward signs of the disease, so MS is often called a “silent disease.”

Relapsing-remitting MS is a form of the condition characterized by defined periods of relapse and remission without progression. About 85 percent of all patients are initially diagnosed with this form of MS before beginning treatment.

While there is no cure for MS, recent advances have led to effective therapies that can help MS patients manage their symptoms. Disease-modifying drugs work to change your body’s immune response. These treatments are available as oral medications or injections, prescribed by a medical professional. Other medications that are sometimes recommended to MS patients to ease symptoms include muscle relaxants or corticosteroids, the latter to reduce inflammation.

Because MS can be a challenging disease physically and mentally, drug therapy is often supplemented by physical and emotional support from trained therapists.

The key to successfully treating MS involves working closely with your doctor and other specialists. Medications, therapy, and proper lifestyle choices can help ensure that MS remains only a part of your life, not the determining factor of how you should live it.

Receiving a multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis can leave you feeling overwhelmed and scared. But it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation estimates that there are more than 2.5 million people living with MS around the world.

It’s normal to have a lot of questions about your new diagnosis. Getting your questions answered and learning about your condition can help you feel more at ease.

Here are some questions to ask your doctor during your next appointment.

What Symptoms Will I Experience?

Chances are, it was your symptoms that helped your doctor diagnosis you in the first place. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms, so it can be difficult to predict how your disease will progress or exactly what symptoms you will feel. Your symptoms will also depend on the location of the affected nerve fibers.

Common signs and symptoms of MS include:

  • numbness or weakness, usually affecting one side of the body at a time
  • painful eye movement
  • vision loss or disturbances, usually in one eye
  • extreme fatigue
  • tingling or “prickly” sensation
  • pain
  • electric shock sensations, often when moving the neck
  • tremors
  • balance issues
  • dizziness or vertigo
  • bowel and bladder issues
  • slurred speech

While the exact course of your disease can’t be predicted, 85 percent of those with MS have relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). RRMS is characterized by a relapse of symptoms followed by a period of remission that can last months or even years. These relapses are also called exacerbations or flare-ups.

What Are My Treatment Options?

There’s currently no cure, but there are many effective medications available to treat MS. The three main goals for treatment are to:

  • modify the disease course by slowing MS activity for longer periods of remission
  • treat attacks or relapses
  • manage symptoms

Disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) approved by the Food and Drug Administration can effectively decrease the number of relapses and slow progression of your disease. Some DMTs are given by a medical professional through an intravenous infusion, while others are given by injection at home.

Many attacks resolve without extra treatment. When severe, your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid, such as prednisone, to reduce inflammation quickly. Other medications are available for those who can’t take corticosteroids.

Your symptoms will vary and need to be treated individually. Your medications will depend on the symptoms you’re experiencing. There are several oral and topical medication options available for each symptom, such as pain, stiffness, and spasms. Treatments are also available to manage other symptoms associated with MS, including anxiety, depression, and bladder or bowel issues.

Other therapies, such as rehabilitation, may be recommended alongside medication.

What Else Can I Do to Manage My MS?

Making healthier lifestyle choices may help you manage your MS symptoms. Studies have found that people with MS who exercise experience improved strength and endurance, along with better bladder and bowel function. Exercise has also been found to improve mood and energy levels. Ask your doctor for a referral to a physical therapist that has experience working with people who have MS.

A healthy diet can improve energy levels and help you maintain a healthy weight. There isn’t a specific MS diet, but a low-fat and high-fiber diet is recommended. Small studies have suggested that adding omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D may be beneficial for MS, but more research is needed. A nutritionist experienced in MS can help you choose the right foods for optimal health.

Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol intake has also been found to be beneficial to those with MS.

Although no one can predict the course your disease will take, MS can be managed through proper treatment and a healthy lifestyle. Speak openly with your doctor about your concerns and work together to create a plan that best suits your needs.