If you have recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, you have a lot of new things to think about. What is MS? What are your treatment options? Perhaps most importantly, how do you find the right doctor for you?
Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a debilitating disease caused by an abnormal immune response within the body. The immune system attacks the nervous system, particularly myelin, which is the insulation around nerves that makes sure messages are sent and received by the brain properly. Once the myelin is damaged, a variety of symptoms may appear, including:
- numbness and tingling in the arms and legs
- nerve pain
- blurred vision
When you began having symptoms of MS, you likely visited your primary care doctor to find out what was wrong. General practitioners and internists are trained to diagnose and treat an incredible array of illnesses, and their diverse knowledge is critical to determining what’s making you sick and what to do next. Your doctor likely referred you to a neurologist once they assessed your neurological symptoms.
A neurologist is a specialist, but they focus on a large area of medicine: the nervous system. After being diagnosed with MS, you may wish to find a more narrowly focused neurologist who really understands the ins and outs of the disease, is up to date on the latest treatments, and has a wealth of experience treating patients like you.
A doctor who specializes in MS can provide many benefits that a generalist can’t offer. Because they focus on the treatment of one disease or a group of similar diseases, a specialist:
- keeps track of clinical trials and the latest MS treatment options
- is highly experienced treating MS patients
- has expert knowledge regarding prognoses and quality of life issues
- has seen many, many MS patients, and probably has experience with nearly every symptom and nearly every treatment side effect
If you decide to go with a MS specialist, make an informed decision. Think about what you want in a doctor, and don’t be afraid to shop around. Things to consider:
- What is your own position or attitude on treatments? Do you want a doctor who goes for aggressive treatments, or one who takes a “wait and see” approach?
- Would you like an integrative approach? You may or may not like the idea of having access to in-house mental health practitioners, rehabilitation specialists, nutritionists, and other experts.
- Which is more important to you: being close to your doctor in case of relapse or emergency, or finding the best fit, regardless of travel requirements?
If you have a MS center in your area, or can travel for treatment, you will benefit from a team of trained specialists, nurses, imaging technicians, and support staff. You may even have access to the newest treatments and clinical trials. Some of the top hospitals in the country boast centers specializing in MS treatment, including:
- Johns Hopkins Multiple Sclerosis Center
- Cleveland Clinic Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis
- The Maryland Center for Multiple Sclerosis (part of the University of Maryland)
- The Judith Jaffe Multiple Sclerosis Center at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center
Keep in mind that MS is a lifelong disease. You aren’t looking for a doctor to treat the sniffles — you’re looking for a partner for the long haul.