Multiple Sclerosis (MS)… some call it the MonSter, or the Beast. It is a demyelinating disease, an invisible illness, a mysterious ailment subject to many misconceptions. Who, what, where, when, why, how… all good questions.
That’s why the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation recognizes March as National MS Education & Awareness Month, and the National MS Society designated March 8-14 as MS Awareness Week.
WHO gets MS? About 2.5 million people worldwide have MS. It is estimated that 400,000 people in the United States have it, with 200 more diagnosed each week. These numbers are only estimates, because MS is not tracked by the Centers for Disease Control or any other federal agency. In fact, there is no coordinated effort at all to track the incidence of MS in the United States. The last national study of MS rates took place in 1975, and much has changed since then. Further reading: Multiple Sclerosis by the Numbers… but Who’s Counting?
MS is more common among females and is found more often in Caucasians of northern European ancestry than in Hispanics/Latinos or African-Americans and is relatively rare among Asians and some other ethnic groups.
National MS Society video: What are my chances of getting MS?
WHAT is MS? MS is a neurological disease in which myelin — the substance that protects neurons — is damaged, forming lesions in the central nervous system that interrupt the transmission of electrical currents to the rest of the body. Relapsing/remitting MS, the most common form at onset, causes flare-ups followed by periods of remission; there are several types of progressive MS in which symptoms worsen over time with no remissions.
National MS Society video: Courses of MS and Exacerbations
Symptoms vary greatly from patient to patient — and from day to day — and include fatigue, numbness, visual impairment, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, cognitive impairment, tremors, vertigo, pain, depression, lack of coordination, paralysis, and blindness. Some people with MS experience the worst of these, while others register barely a blip on the radar. Prognosis is near impossible.
There is currently no single definitive test for MS. It is diagnosed through neurological exam, clinical history, and a series of tests, along with elimination of other diseases. MS is not contagious.
National MS Society video: Understanding the Disease Process
WHERE is MS most prevalent? Northern latitudes farther from the equator see higher incidence of MS than areas closer to the equator. Exposure to sunlight and vitamin D is a factor currently being studied.
WHEN do people get MS? It is difficult to pinpoint when MS begins, but diagnosis usually takes place between the ages of 20 and 40. Due to MRI, an increasing number of young adults and children are being diagnosed with MS.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society reports that up to 10,000 of the estimated 400,000 Americans who have MS are children or adolescents. At least that many children also have experienced at least one symptom suggestive of MS.
WHY do people get MS? That’s the big question! The cause remains unclear. MS is thought to be an autoimmune disease — one in which the immune system reacts abnormally, causing the body to mistakenly attack itself. Another theory is that a virus or infectious agent plays a role. A combination of genetics and environmental factors is one avenue that researchers are pursuing. Studies into the cause and cure are ongoing.
Researchers at the Buffalo Neuroimaging Analysis Center at the University of Buffalo are looking into the possibility that MS results from narrowing of the primary veins outside the skull — chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency. In CCSVI, narrowing of the veins restricts the flow of blood from the brain, causing degeneration of neurons. CCSVI was discovered by Paolo Zamboni, M.D., from Italy’s University of Ferrara. Results of a preliminary study of 16 patients with relapsing/remitting MS and eight healthy controls showed that all the MS patients, but none of the controls, had chronic insufficient blood flow out of the brain. (CCSVI and other MS hot topics will be addressed in a post later this month.) Further reading: Research Challenging What We Know about Multiple Sclerosis
National MS Society video: Why Does Someone get MS?
HOW is MS treated? There are several disease-modifying injectable medications intended to decrease the number and severity of relapses and stave off permanent disability. Attacks are sometimes treated with steroids, and specific symptoms can also be treated. It is crucial for people with MS to implement healthy lifestyle choices, including a balanced diet, exercise when possible, rest, and avoidance of tobacco and other harmful products in order to avoid other preventable diseases.
National MS Society video: Researching the Later Stages of MS
Multiple Sclerosis has a profound effect on those who must live with it, or in its wake. The physical, emotional, and financial toll on the entire family is incalculable.
Throughout the month of March, I will offer glimpses into my own life with MS in Care2 Healthy & Green Living. While there is no such thing as a typical case, those who are familiar with MS will nod in recognition. If you are not familiar with MS, please allow us a few moments of your time during MS Education and Awareness Month, and check back here in Care2 Causes in the weeks to come.
From Healthy and Green Living: A Diagnosis Odyssey
All my previous posts from Care2 Living with MS can be accessed HERE
If you are so inclined, please help educate others by sharing these posts… and you can get my updates on Twitter @AnnPietrangelo. Thank you for your support of people with multiple sclerosis.
Photo: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention