What is multiple sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis is a central nervous system disorder characterized by damage to the messages transmitted to and from the brain. These messages generally control the way the body works. Thus, any damage can cause problems with vision, memory, balance and movement. It may also affect the ability to feel sensation, pain and vibration.
The human body is serviced by an extensive system of nerves that control the way the body functions. These nerves are protected by a fatty substance called myelin which insulates them from damage. If a person suffers from multiple sclerosis, the myelin is damaged thus blocking the impulses from the brain.
Symptoms of multiple sclerosis
The early symptoms include loss of vision, loss of balance, weakness, and numbness. These symptoms are not universal to all sufferers. In fact, some people suffer little more than intense fatigue while others may be so affected they may become paralyzed.
The term ‘sclerosis’ means scarring and anyone looking at the brain or the tissue of the spinal cord sees what looks like intense scarring.
The damage in multiple sclerosis is thought to be caused by an unusual reaction to infections. The immune system produces white blood cells that destroy dangerous bacteria or viruses. However, in cases of multiple sclerosis, the white cells attack healthy tissue like myelin and nerve cells. This is called an auto immune response.
What are the types of multiple sclerosis?
There are four main kinds of multiple sclerosis, with symptoms varying in severity. These are:
- Benign relapsing/remitting (RRMS).
- Secondary progressive (SPMS).
People with benign multiple sclerosis may have the occasional attack while feeling perfectly healthy at other times. They suffer only a mild disability or no disability at all though medical examination shows evidence of multiple sclerosis damage to the brain. The lack of disability is because the damage may be in places in the brain that do not cause obvious disability or the damage is minimal.
More than fifty percent of sufferers start with relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis in which they may suffer relapses two or three times a year with partial or complete recovery at other times. However, due to the gradual death of nerve cells and the myelin, the symptoms may get worse and more frequent. This takes them into the stage of secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS).
In secondary progressive multiple sclerosis or SPMS, the disability increases as there is a progressive loss of nerve cells. During this stage, the sufferer no longer has relapses and remissions and the disability becomes progressively worse.
There are some people who become more and more disabled without ever having relapses and remissions. This type of multiple sclerosis is called primary progressive multiple sclerosis.
How is it diagnosed?
Our bodies fight infection by producing white blood cells, a natural disease fighter. However, in people with multiple sclerosis, the protective covering of the nerve fibres (myelin) is also attacked by these white blood cells. One of the tests done to diagnose multiple sclerosis is a lumbar puncture. In this test, cerebrospinal fluid is extracted from the spine through a hollow needle and is examined for signs of this disease.
The hidden signs of multiple sclerosis can also be detected using an MRI (magnetic resonance image). This uses a combination of radio waves and magnetic fields that provide a detailed view of the brain and spinal cord. By using this, the lesions in the myelin can be detected.
Treatment and outlook
At this time, multiple sclerosis is incurable, although thre is research taking place globally in an effort to find a treatment that will slow down the progression of this illness. In the meantime, there are a number of options which may make life more bearable. Some doctors prescribe ACTH, a steroid that accelerates the healing actions of the body.
Though there is no scientific evidence that special diets are beneficial, anecdotal evidence suggests that diets such as gluten free diets or those low in animal fats do help. Many multiple sclerosis sufferers seek out alternative therapies to relieve their symptoms. This may include acupuncture, homeopathy, and yoga.
For each person, the answer may be different and, though multiple sclerosis has no cure, it is important for the sufferer to find a positive way of living with this illness.