Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease of the central nervous system of the body. The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord. In people with MS, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks a substance called myelin. Myelin is the protective coating around nerve fibers in the central nervous system.
When damaged, the myelin forms scar tissue called sclerosis, which gives the disease its name. This scar tissue interrupts electrical signals traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord, causing a variety of symptoms.
Symptoms of MS are often unpredictable. They may be mild (feeling overly tired or having muscle spasms) or severe (losing the ability to speak or walk), depending on the area of the central nervous system affected. Symptoms may fluctuate between periods of remission (no symptoms) to relapse (also known as attacks).
The following are common symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
- Muscle weakness
- Walking difficulties
- Numbness or tingling
- Muscle spasms (spasticity)
- Vision problems
- Vision problems
- Bladder problems
- Bowel problems
- Sexual problems
- Behavioral changes
Less common symptoms of MS include:
- Speech problems
- Swallowing problems
- Tremor or uncontrollable shaking
- Breathing problems
- Hearing loss
These are all considered primary symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Complications that may occur as a result of the primary symptoms are called secondary symptoms. Some common secondary symptoms may include:
- Bladder dysfunction
- Loss of muscle tone and bone density
- Pressure sores from immobility
People with MS may also experience what is called tertiary symptoms. These are known as a “trickle-down” effect as a result of the disease. These symptoms include social, emotional, and psychological complications. For example, people with MS may feel isolated and depressed as a result of the symptoms of the disease.
There are many possible causes of multiple sclerosis, including:
- Genetic factors
- Autoimmune disorders
- Viruses or infections
- Environmental factors
There is no one test that, by itself, can diagnose MS. Your healthcare provider will first work to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms. He or she will also perform a complete health history and a neurological exam.
To diagnose multiple sclerosis, your healthcare provider will also look for the following evidence of disease-caused damage (markers):
- In at least 2 separate areas of the central nervous system
- That occurred at least 1 month apart
The following diagnostic tests may be ordered when evaluating a person for multiple sclerosis:
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). This test can find plaques or scarring in the central nervous system that may be caused by multiple sclerosis.
- Evoked potentials. These tests measure electrical activity of the brain when responding to visual, auditory, and sensory stimuli. During these tests, your healthcare provider can see the speed of messages sent to and from the brain.
- Cerebrospinal fluid. This test is also called a spinal tap or lumbar puncture. It looks for abnormalities in the fluid taken from the spinal column.
There is no cure for multiple sclerosis. If you are diagnosed with MS, you will work with a team of healthcare providers to help you manage the disease. Treatment for MS includes:
- Medicines to manage your symptoms
- Rehabilitation activities such as physical therapy and occupational therapy
- Equipment such as braces, walkers, or wheelchairs
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