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 some 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 isn’t fatal.
Most of the 2.3 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 with medications and lifestyle adjustments.
Though MS can be diagnosed in children and older adults, those affected are typically diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS).
When the diagnosis is made when the person is over 50, it’s usually called late-onset MS. Older adults sometimes have a more difficult time finding a diagnosis due to other, age-related conditions with similar symptoms.
Women are two to three times more likely to develop MS than others.
MS can be a challenge to diagnose. Symptoms and single tests may not be enough to definitively diagnose MS. MS shares symptoms with a number of other conditions, making pinpointing the source harder.
Multiple tests to rule out other possible causes of the symptoms are usually required, including:
- blood tests
- neurological exams
- magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- visual evoked potential (VEP) test
- spinal fluid analysis
- optical coherence tomography (OCT)
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.
Remission is a period in which you have improvement of your relapsing symptoms. A remission can last for weeks, months, or, in some cases, years. But remission doesn’t mean you no longer have MS.
MS medications can help reduce the chances of developing new symptoms, 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 monitor and help you manage.
MS is labeled as a “silent disease” or an “invisible illness.” 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, aren’t 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 don’t cause MS to progress more quickly.
Sunlight triggers the production of vitamin D in your body, but sun exposure can also lead to heat-induced symptoms.
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.
Science is working to develop new tools and treatments every day that may help aid in symptom reduction.