Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the nervous system. It causes a range of different symptoms that include visual problems, weakness and numbness. The cause of MS is unknown. What scientists and doctors do know is that it is an inflammatory process that attacks a certain substance in our nervous systems called “myelin”.
Myelin is the sheath-like substance that surrounds neurons, which are the active cells that make up the nervous system. We need myelin to facilitate the transmission of signals up and down neurons, just like insulation facilitates in electrical wiring. In individuals where the myelin is broken down, nerve impulses do not work efficiently enough and that is what causes the symptoms we recognize in those with MS.
Who gets MS?
There are 2.5 million individuals around the world who are diagnosed with MS. The common age to be diagnosed with MS is between 20 and 40. Women seem to get MS more than men as well as individuals living in northern latitudes. There appears to be some genetic disposition to developing MS as parents and siblings seem to have MS in common.
There is a 1 to 3% chance that if you have a parent or a sibling with MS, that you may develop it also. If you are an identical twin of a person with MS, you have a 25% chance of also developing it. Researches believe that there is an environmental influence that triggers the genetic predisposition for MS. A virus might possibly trigger it.
The symptoms all relate to the central nervous system. The central nervous system consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The symptoms vary from one individual with MS to another one with MS.
The common symptoms of MS are:
Weakness – This can occur anywhere in the body. It can come on suddenly or it may occur slowly over time.
Spasms and Stiffness – These may affect more than one limb and can cause difficulty using that limb. If you are experiencing spasms or stiffness in your legs, it may be difficult to walk. You may feel like you have charley horses in your legs while you are exercising.
Sensory – You can experience numbness anywhere in your body. You may also have unusual sensations such as “pins and needles” that can last for a long time.
Visual – Optic neuritis is a condition that is caused by inflammation of the optic nerve. This condition results in decreased vision. The vision loss can be mild, involving color discrimination or it can be severe. Usually the vision symptoms will start slowly and then perhaps you will experience a more rapid decline in your vision. There may be an accompanying pain or light sensitivity. The vision loss may last for days or for weeks and even for months at a time. These vision symptoms almost always recover, but some individuals may notice a residual but subtle permanent change in their vision. Visual symptoms may return during exercising, when you are exerting yourself, or when your body temperature increases, such as when taking a hot shower or being submersed in a hot tub. When the body temperature returns to normal, so will the vision.
Eye movement abnormalities are common with MS. They may be in the form of double vision, or a “jumpy” vision. This can affect eye coordination of movement, or the signals received by the eyes are not being received at the same time.
Walking Issues – Weakness and stiffness as well as spasms can make walking difficult. Balance may also be an issue as well as a decreased sensation in the feet, which will make walking more difficult where it comes to making judgments about space and temperature and surface structure.
Urinary – There may be difficulties with starting a urine stream or completely emptying the bladder. Men may experience difficulty with erectile function and may have decreased libido or may have difficulty having an orgasm.
Fatigue – This is a common symptom that may be triggered by increased air temperature, and humidity. It can take more energy for a individual with MS to do the same task as before having MS.
Pain – New MS lesions can cause inflammation around the linings of the nerves and can cause acute pain, especially in optic neuritis. Spasms experienced in limbs can be painful. Neuropathic pain is a chronic condition that feels like “pins and needles” or a burning sensation.
Depression – 75% of individuals with MS can experience depression on a situational basis or even brought on by the diagnosis itself, or when they go through a decrease in ability to function.
Cognitive – Difficulties occur in 50 to 75% of individuals with MS that include a slowing of the ability to process information, short-term memory loss, impaired visuospatial skill such as depth perception. These cognitive symptoms usually occur much later in the course of the disease and are presumed to be connected to having many demyelinating lesions.
Typically a MS attack will last for more than 24 hours and can involve one or more of these symptoms.