What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disease, which means it affects your nerves. It’s also an autoimmune disease. This means your body’s defenses against disease malfunction and start attacking your own cells.

With MS, your immune system attacks your body’s myelin, which is a protective substance that covers your nerves. The unprotected nerves are damaged and can’t function as they would with healthy myelin. The damage to the nerves produces a wide range of symptoms that vary in severity.

Read on for seven key facts you should know about MS.

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic condition, which means it’s long-lasting and there’s no cure for it. That said, 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 standard life expectancy. A rare few may have complications so severe that their life is shortened.

Although MS is a lifelong condition, many of its 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’s no such thing as a “typical” symptom of MS because each person experiences the disease differently. The same symptoms may come and go frequently, or you may regain a lost function, such as bladder control. The unpredictable pattern of symptoms has to do with which nerves your immune system attacks at any given time.

Most people who seek 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. MS medications can help put you into remission, but you still have MS. Symptoms will likely return at some point.

The damage MS does to your nerves can also affect your critical thinking and other cognitive (mental) skills. It’s not uncommon for people with MS to have problems with memory and finding the right words to express themselves. Other cognitive effects can include:

  • inability to concentrate or pay attention
  • impaired problem-solving skills
  • trouble with spatial relations (knowing where your body is in space)

Cognitive problems can sometimes lead to frustration, depression, and anger. These are normal reactions that your doctor can help you manage.

MS is labeled as a “silent disease” or an “invisible disability.” Many people with MS look no different from someone without it because some of the symptoms, such as blurred vision, sensory problems, and chronic pain, are not visible. However, someone with MS may need special accommodations even though they don’t have mobility issues and seem “fine.”

MS 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.

Doctors recommend that people with MS stay cool whenever possible. Heat intolerance is a common problem and often causes an exacerbation of symptoms. You might experience a spike of symptoms from:

  • hot weather or sun exposure
  • fever or illness
  • 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. A cooling vest can also help.

It’s important to note that although you may have a relapse that’s heat-related, hot temperatures do not cause MS to progress more quickly.

Research has shown a link between vitamin D and MS. The nutrient can act as a protector against MS, and it may lead to fewer relapses in people who already have the disease.

Sunlight triggers the production of vitamin D in your body, but sun exposure can also lead to heat-induced relapses. Less risky sources of vitamin D may include fortified milk, orange juice, and certain breakfast cereals. Cod liver oil, swordfish, salmon, tuna, and eggs are also natural food sources of vitamin D.

MS is an unpredictable disease that acts differently in each person. To help you live with your symptoms today and in the future, arm yourself with a solid support system of medical professionals, friends, and family. Also, follow the treatment plan that your doctor creates for you. Appropriate treatment can minimize relapses and help you live each day to the fullest.