Multiple Sclerosis, also known as MS, is a progressive disease of the central nervous system that affects as many as 2.3 million people globally. In Canada, an estimated 77,000 people live with the disease. While MS is most often diagnosed in individuals between the ages of 20 and 50, it can also be diagnosed in younger children and older adults. Whether you’ve been diagnosed with MS or know someone who has, it is important to have a good understanding of the disease through education and awareness. This will not only help you to better manage your symptoms and discuss potential treatment options with your healthcare providers, but it will also help your partner, friends and family members comprehend the complexity of the disease, as well as enhance your quality of life.
While the exact cause of Multiple Sclerosis is not known, researchers believe that it is triggered by a variety of factors. For example, some research has suggested that those who live in areas further from the equator are more likely to develop MS, as well as those with low levels of vitamin D, those who smoke, and those who are obese. Certain viruses and bacteria, including measles, human herpes virus-6, as well as EBV (Epstein-Barr virus) are also being investigated to determine whether or not they are linked to the development of Multiple Sclerosis. There are also some potential genetic factors that may also play a role. While Multiple Sclerosis is not a disease that is passed down from generation to generation, some research has shown that there may be a genetic predisposition. For example, if you have a first-degree relative (such as a twin) with MS, then you may also be at risk of developing MS yourself. However, that risk is about 1 in 1,000 and more research needs to be done to better understand this. There have also been many disproved theories into the causes of Multiple Sclerosis. For example, it was once thought that the canine distemper virus, which is a virus that is carried by dogs, could be the culprit of MS; however, household pets have since been ruled out as having any link to the disease. Things such as environmental allergens, exposure to heavy metals, and the artificial sweetener known as aspartame were also ruled out as being linked to Multiple Sclerosis.
Symptoms of MS come with a wide range of symptoms, and what one individual experiences will be different from another. However, some of the most common symptoms include pain, fatigue, weakness, numbness or tinging of the face, body, or other extremities such as the arms and legs, muscle spasms, difficulty walking, dizziness, blurred vision, bladder dysfunction, constipation, and cognitive and emotional changes. Less common symptoms of MS, though ones that can still occur, include speech problems, swallowing problems, tremors, breathing problems, itching, hearing problems, and headaches.
If it is suspected that a patient may have Multiple Sclerosis, the most common diagnostic tool used is a type of medical imaging test known as an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging.) Unlike x-rays, which uses radiation, an MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves. An MRI will often be able to detect demyelination of the central nervous system, which is indicative of MS. However, in some cases an MRI may also appear normal even in a patient with MS, and a diagnosis will then be based on the patient’s clinical signs and symptoms. If MS has been detected through an MRI, doctors may also order additional MRIs to track the progress of the disease as well as to determine if treatment is effective.
Because MS is considered to be a complex disease, it requires a comprehensive approach. In many cases, patients with MS will often experience flare-ups of symptoms as well as periods of remission (in which no symptoms are present.) Nonetheless, the main focus when it comes to treating MS is to treat the symptoms and decrease the number of relapses that a patient has, as opposed to treating the disease itself since there is no specific cure.