Unpredictable. Life-changing. Scary. Multiple sclerosis is lots of things — But the physiological signs of MS offer a definition of the disease.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease that affects the central nervous system (CNS) of the body, making it difficult for the nervous system to communicate appropriately. The central nervous system is made up of 3 parts:
- the spinal cord;
- the brain; and
- the optic nerves
Multiple sclerosis is a potentially disabling disease in which the immune system attacks the protective layer around nerve fibers in the brain, known as ‘myelin.’ Once the myelin is damaged it causes lesions, scar tissue, and inflammation. As a result of the damage, it is harder for the brain to send signals to the body, causing the symptoms of the disease.
Because of this damage to the myelin, multiple sclerosis is known as a demyelinating disease. While MS is the most common example of this type of disease, there are others, including Devic’s disease, which also impact the CNS.
Is multiple sclerosis an autoimmune disease?
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, multiple sclerosis is an immune-mediated disease. There is discussion among experts whether it is accurate to call MS an autoimmune disease (such as lupus, Crohn’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis).
In an autoimmune disease, the body’s immune system misidentifies a normally occurring antigen in the body and responds to it as if it were a foreign invader. While the same type of immune response occurs for people with multiple sclerosis, no antigen has been identified yet.
Signs & symptoms of multiple sclerosis
People with multiple sclerosis experience a variety of symptoms and symptoms can vary significantly from one person to another. In fact, depending on the location of the nerve fibers that have been affected, the symptoms may even change in severity day-to-day.
Two of the most common symptoms of multiple sclerosis are extreme fatigue and difficulty walking. Other symptoms of MS include:
- Tingling or pain in various parts of the body
- Sensations of an electric-shock that may happen with certain movements of the neck, especially while bending forward
- Weakness or numbness in one or more of your limbs
- Often occurs on one side of your body at a time, or in the trunk and legs
- Prolonged double vision
- Partial or complete vision loss
- Typically in one eye at a time
- Slurred speech
- Body tremors
- Lack of coordination and/or unsteady gait
- Problems with bladder and bowel functions
- Muscle spasticity
- Cognitive issues involving memory, concentration and problem-solving skills
- Acute or chronic pain
Course of multiple sclerosis
MS often presents itself as a relapsing-remitting disease. Symptoms may be present for a few days or weeks at a time. Then, following a relapse into high disease activity, the symptoms may partially, or completely improve.
Remission (the time between flare ups of the disease) may last months, or even years for some people. The cyclical nature of the disease and the range of symptoms possible combine to make MS incredibly unpredictable.
Relapsing-remitting MS can turn into secondary-progressive MS. In secondary-progressive MS (SPMS), the symptoms are often worse and there is little or no time remission. Previous research showed that 50% of people would develop SPMS in 10 years, and 90% of people would develop it in 25 years. But, new treatments are being developed to slow or stop this progression.
Although MS is thought to be an autoimmune disorder, it is not like catching the flu or a cold. Multiple sclerosis is an incurable, lifelong disease and the symptoms can range from mild to completely disabling.
If you suspect you may have any of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, speak with your physician, or a neurologist, as soon as possible.