MS Awareness Week: What is multiple sclerosis, its symptoms and how is it treated?

There are roughly 100,000 people living with the disease in the UK

Olivia Petter@oliviapetter1
Monday 20 April 2020 07:33

MS Awareness Week is running 20-26 April 2020 and is an opportunity for raising awareness around multiple sclerosis.

"Most people have a vague idea what MS is, but lots of them are a bit confused," says the MS Society.

"Some people know it causes problems with how we move. But what about how we feel? And the symptoms you can't see?"

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a lifelong autoimmune condition that affects the brain and the spinal cord, resulting in a wide range of symptoms that vary from person-to-person.

Depending on the severity, MS can be debilitating, leading to problems with vision, balance and movement.

While there is no cure, the disease can be treated and managed with various medications.

The NHS estimates there to be 100,000 people with the condition in the UK. Joan Didion, Jack Osbourne and Selma Blair, who was diagnosed in August 2018, are among those in the public eye who live with MS.

Read on for everything you need to know about MS.

What is it?

MS inhibits how well a person’s central nervous system functions, subsequently interrupting the process whereby the brain sends signals to the rest of the body to enable you to do simple things like move, eat and see.

Normally, the nerve fibres in the central nervous system are protected by a substance called Myelin, which also helps fight off infections.

When a person has MS, the body mistakes Myelin for a harmful substance and therefore attacks it, leaving lesions on the central nervous system and preventing these signals from being sent around the body.

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This can lead to severe nerve damage which may cause serious disability over time, according to the MS Society.

This kind of illness – whereby the immune system mistakes a crucial part of your body for a foreign substance and attacks it – is known as an autoimmune condition.

What causes it?

There’s no clear explanation as to why people develop MS, though the NHS states that possible causes include smoking, viral infections, lack of sunlight and your genetic makeup ie those who have relatives with MS have a higher chance of contracting it.

It’s more common in women than men, but again there is no clear reason for this.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of MS manifest in different ways depending on which part of your central nervous system has been affected.

They are also incredibly unpredictable: some symptoms can be temporary while others will worsen over time.

Common symptoms as listed by the NHS include fatigue, vision problems, numbness, mobility problems, pain, depression, bowel problems, speech difficulty, muscle spasms and learning difficulties.

Life expectancy is also shorter for people with MS.

How is it diagnosed?

The symptoms of MS can be similar to several other illnesses, making it difficult to diagnose.

There is no single test for the disease and doctors are usually only able to confirm a case after a person has had two “attacks” of MS-like symptoms ie falling over for no reason/sudden loss of vision.

After this, doctors will typically carry out a neurological examination, where they will look for abnormalities in your coordination and your reflexes among other things to see if you’ve suffered nerve damage.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans may also be carried out to look for lesions in and around the brain and the spinal cord.

How is it treated?

Treatment for MS depends on what symptoms have arisen.

Some, such as blurred vision, will lead doctors to prescribe steroid tablets, while other physical symptoms, such as muscle spasms, will be treated with regular physiotherapy.

For those experiencing issues with thinking, learning and memory, you might be referred to a clinical psychologist.

It can take time to adapt living with MS, but the NHS claims that with the right care and support, many people with the condition go on to live long and healthy lives.

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