Multiple Sclerosis

06 June 2007

Could you get multiple sclerosis (MS)?

Would you even recognise the symptoms of multiple sclerosis if you suddenly got them?

Emily* was in her early 20s when she came down with what she thought was a bug. Her vision was blurred, she had pins and needles in her legs, and suddenly it became difficult to concentrate on a TV programme she really wanted to see.

A week later, when she still felt grim, she went to the doctor. He recommended an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. The news came like a bolt out of the blue: Emily had developed multiple sclerosis (MS).

It’s a shocking diagnosis for people who don’t understand the disease. Like most of us, Emily’s perception was that people with MS developed difficulty walking, ended up in wheelchairs, and died young.

It’s time to find out more.

What it is not:
  • It is not an “old-person’s disease”. Emily’s not unusual: MS is mostly diagnosed in young adults, between the ages of 20 and 40.
  • MS is not hereditary.

What it is:

  • MS is a life-long chronic inflammatory disease affecting the central nervous system. It is thought to be an auto-immune disease, meaning your immune system launches an attack – in this case on the nervous system. The exact causes are not known.
  • Initial symptoms include blurred or double vision, red-green colour distortion, or even blindness in one eye. Muscle weakness and difficulty with co-ordination and balance are also frequent early symptoms.
  • Half of all people with MS have slight difficulties with concentration, attention, memory and judgement. Intellectual and language abilities usually remain unaffected.
  • During an MS attack, inflammation occurs in certain areas (called plaques) of the central nervous system. The onset of these attacks is unpredictable. Between attacks, the symptoms may disappear, but neurological damage often persists.
  • Next comes the destruction of myelin, which is the substance that insulates nerve cell fibres in the brain and spinal cord. The function of myelin is to speed up the communication of messages between the brain, the spinal cord and the rest of the body. If the myelin is destroyed – you can see this with an MRI scan - these messages have difficulty getting through.
  • Factors that seem to affect relapses include hot weather, viral or bacterial infections, and emotional or physical stress.

What are your chances?

  • Your chances of getting it are less than one in a thousand.
  • If you do get it, and as described above, MS comes in a series of attacks, which are categorised four ways, describing the patterns of progression. The time lapse between attacks, and the approach of disability, determine the nature of each specific person’s MS.
  • There is no cure. Treatment largely consists of treating the symptoms of an attack, and preventing new attacks. This holds disability at bay as far as possible – in some cases, for decades.

* Not her real name.


(Susan Erasmus, Health24, May, 2007)


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