March is Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month here in the United States. Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune disease of the central nervous system (CNS). Within the CNS, MS causes inflammation that damages myelin, nerve fibers, and the cells that make myelin.
Damage to myelin and nerve fibers can interfere with the transmission of nerve signals between the brain and the spinal cord, as well as other parts of the body. The damage to your nerves produces a wide range of neurological symptoms that vary in severity. People with MS will typically experience one of four disease courses.
Most people with MS receive their diagnosis between the ages of 20 and 50, although in some cases children and older adults may develop it. According to the MS Society, nearly 1 million people in the US are living with multiple sclerosis and nearly 2.3 million people worldwide have a diagnosis of MS.
Read on for 6 things you should know about MS.
MS is a chronic condition
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic condition, meaning it’s long-lasting and there’s no cure for it. There are some FDA-approved medications to modify the course of MS by limiting areas of damage of the CNS, but there’s currently no cure. This being said, MS typically isn’t a fatal disease. Most people living with a multiple sclerosis diagnosis have a standard life expectancy. In some very rare instances, MS can progress rapidly from the onset and be fatal.
MS affects younger adults, and often women
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke (NINDS), more than twice as many women develop MS than men. Some research has suggested that differences in the brains of men and women may affect their likelihood of developing MS.
Though MS can develop at any age, symptoms usually appear between the ages of 20 and 50.
Symptoms of MS may vary
Symptoms of MS can be unpredictable and vary in type and severity amongst those living with the disease. Some symptoms may remit or disappear completely for people, while others may experience certain symptoms persisting and worsening over time.
The most common symptoms of MS include fatigue, numbness or tingling, vision problems, weakness, poor coordination and balance, slurred speech, and problems with memory and concentration.
MS is more common in colder climates
Rates of MS are higher in countries that are further from the equator. MS is more common in countries with a temperate climate, such as the northern United States, Canada, New Zealand, Europe, and southeastern Australia.
Some studies indicate that people who live in colder climates have a higher risk of developing MS due to lower sunlight exposure. Growing evidence suggests vitamin D may play a role in developing MS, because vitamin D is thought to support immune function.
MS is a silent disease
MS is often labeled as a “silent disease” or an “invisible illness”. Many people living with MS look the same as those without it, which can make their day-to-day life difficult and frustrating. Some of the most common symptoms of MS, such as blurred vision and chronic pain, cannot be seen by other people.
The disease can also progress rapidly without giving any indication to the person living with it.
Living with MS
Managing MS can be different for everyone with the disease depending on their course, type of MS, symptoms, and lifestyle. Though there is no cure for MS, it is a very manageable disease. Healthy eating and exercising daily can help manage some MS symptoms. There are also many support groups and counseling services available to help you navigate the disease.
Diagnosing MS can sometimes be a long process. MS cannot be diagnosed by just one test. In most cases, the diagnosis of MS can only be made once other potential causes for symptoms are ruled out. Common blood tests are the first step in ruling out other causes. If you suspect you may have MS, talk to your doctor or healthcare practitioner to see which test may be right for you and your symptoms.