Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a chronic disease of the central nervous system and is an unpredictable condition that can be relatively benign or entirely disabling. Symptoms experienced are the result of communication between the brain and other parts of the body becoming disrupted due to multiple areas of inflammation and scarring (sclerosis) in the central nervous system. Myelin is a fatty tissue that surrounds and protects the nerve fibers and is either decreased or lost in multiple areas in those suffering from MS. This loss of myelin forms scar tissue called sclerosis, also referred to as plaques or lesions. When sclerosis is present, the nerves are unable to conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain properly.
What causes MS?
Although the cause of MS is not known, some of the causes most commonly seen include:
- autoimmune disorders
- environmental factors
- genetic factors
Symptoms of MS
The symptoms of MS are erratic: they can be mild or severe, long duration or short and appear in various combinations depending on the area of the nervous system affected. It is also common to have an attack followed by a period of recovery, also known as exacerbations and remissions.
Although each individual will experience different things, the following are the most common symptoms associated with MS.
Initial symptoms seen at onset of diagnosis:
- blurred or double vision
- red/green color distortion
- pain and loss of vision due to optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve)
- difficulty walking
- paresthesia (numbness, prickling, "pins and needles")
Delayed symptoms seen throughout the course of the illness:
- muscle weakness in the extremities
- difficulty with coordination, walking, standing
- partial or complete paralysis
- muscle spasticity
- loss of sensation
- speech impediments
- hearing loss
- bowel and bladder disturbances
- changes in sexual function
About half of all people with MS will also experience cognitive impairments related to their disease including the following:
- poor judgment
In order to diagnose a patient with multiple sclerosis, they must have experienced two attacks at least one month apart. An MS attack is a sudden appearance of or worsening of any MS symptom(s) lasting at least 24 hours and affecting at least two areas within the central nervous system.
A physician's evaluation for MS involves a complete medical history and neurological exam, including:
- mental functions
- movement and coordination
- functions of the five senses
In addition, diagnostic imaging and testing may also be used:
- MRI - detects any plaques present
- evoked potentials - checks the slowing of any electrical responses in brain
- lumbar puncture for cerebral spinal fluid analysis - identifies any cellular or chemical abnormalities
- blood tests - rules out any other causes of symptoms experienced