Sunday, 2 September 2012

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Look at the myelin sheath, getting all rubbish and damaged

It wouldn’t be much of a blog about MS if I didn’t explain what it is. After all, until the evening after a consultant said to me “I think this might be MS,” I had no idea either.

MS is a disease of the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system, or CNS). The CNS is responsible for conducting electrical signals to the various parts of the body. The nerves in the CNS are insulated by a fatty substance called the myelin sheath, often likened to the flex on an electrical cord. In MS, this sheath is damaged, and the nerves become less efficient at conducting the signals, or even fail to conduct them at all, thus resulting in the various symptoms of MS.

Common symptoms include problems with:

  • Bladder and bowel function
  • Muscles, spasms and stiffness
  • Mood, depression and emotions
  • Memory and cognition
  • Vision
  • Speech and swallowing
  • Sexual function
  • Pain and sensory disturbance
  • Fatigue
  • Tremors
  • Balance
      MS is notoriously unpredictable and symptoms vary considerably from person to person. Some symptoms are immediately obvious to others (problems with speech or mobility, for example), while other symptoms (such as pain and fatigue) are hidden symptoms that can difficult for both observers to understand and for sufferers to explain.

What causes MS?

This is one of medicine's biggest mysteries. Theories include: 
  • A virus, whether an unknown one or a reaction to a common one.
  • An immune reaction, in which the body's own immune system attacks and erodes the myelin sheath.
  • A combination of the above and/or other factors.

Who will get MS?

This is impossible to predict. However, some patterns have been observed.

  • Young adults. Symptoms usually appear between the age of 20 and 40. Therefore, MS has the rather cruel reputation of striking people in their prime and most productive years.
  • Women are twice as likely to develop MS as men.
  • Temperate zones. MS occurrence is higher the further away you move from the equator. This bodes ill for Britain and Ireland. 
  • Sanitation. There is evidence that MS is more common in parts of the world with higher standards of sanitation.

What is MS not?

  • MS is not a mental illness.
  • MS is not contagious.
  • MS is not curable or preventable (yet!)
  • MS is not ME, M&S or Eminem
  • MS is not a barrel of laughs

Why should you care?

What a callous question! Well, seeing as you asked ...
  • Over 2,000,0000 people worldwide have MS, including some 400,000 in the US, 70,000 in Britain and 8,000 in the Republic of Ireland
  • Families of people with MS share the emotional, practical and financial burden of the disease
  • Every year, millions of euros are spend on research, treatment and support services related to MS. The total bill including lost productivity and social welfare costs is incalculable. 
  • Due to the insidious and often invisible nature of MS symptoms, it is generally poorly understood by those who have had no direct experience of it. 
  • It is one of the most common neurological diseases among young people in the world.
Although there is still no cure for MS, treatment is advancing all the time and there are various treatment options available, currently focused on managing symptoms, slowing the progression of the diseases and maintaining quality of life.

Hopefully, this has given you a crash course into the basics of the disease. I will post links to great sites with really good information (particularly the MS Society and MS Ireland) and will post further articles on more specific subject soon.