Understanding Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a lifelong condition that can result in symptom relapses or a gradual progression of symptoms over time. This condition can be difficult to live with and there is currently no cure for it, although there are treatments that can help with symptom management and slow progression. Developing an understanding of this condition can help erase the stigma and cultivate support for those living with it.
What is MS?
MS is an autoimmune condition that affects the nervous system, particularly the brain and spinal cord. The severity of this condition can range from mild to severe, although mild cases are less common. In severe cases, it can cause life-altering disabilities and can reduce overall life expectancy by up to 10 years. In fact, it has become one of the leading causes of disabilities in young adults. According to the NHS, 20s, 30s, and 40s are the most common age groups for diagnosis, but it can occur at any point in a person’s life. Women are approximately two to three times more likely to develop MS than men.
There are three main types of MS, with the main differences being how and when the symptoms appear and progress. These are called relapsing remitting MS, primary progressive MS, and secondary progressive MS.
Relapsing remitting MS
Relapsing remitting MS is the most common type of MS, as it accounts for between 8 and 9 of every 10 cases. This form of the condition causes relapses, which consist of episodes in which symptoms appear or become more severe. A relapse may cause symptoms to get progressively worse over a matter of days, and these episodes can last anywhere from days to months. Then, the person recovers from the symptoms slowly, usually within a similar time frame as they occurred. This is called remission, which can last for years in some cases.
These episodes can happen without any apparent cause, but some are related to other illnesses or stress. Symptoms from the episode may entirely disappear after entering remission. However, it’s common for some symptoms to remain, and for the episodes to repeat themselves over time.
Primary progressive MS
Primary progressive MS is a less common type of MS, and accounts for around one to two of every 10 cases. This form of the condition does not include any remission periods and symptoms gradually appear and increase in severity over time. However, some people with this type of MS do experience periods where the condition stabilises temporarily.
Secondary progressive MS
This is a type of MS that presents in two thirds of patients after experiencing decades of relapsing remitting MS. There aren’t any distinguishable episodes in this type of MS, as symptoms gradually worsen as time goes on. In some cases, people may experience relapses when suffering from this form of MS, but there are rarely periods of remission.
MS causes, symptoms, and treatments
The underlying causes, prominent symptoms, and suitable treatment options can vary from person to person with MS, but there are some common themes among many sufferers.
Doctors and experts are still unclear on the exact root cause of MS, but many believe that it’s due to both genetics and environmental factors. In a physiological sense, the cause of MS symptoms is due to the immune system attacking healthy tissues and parts of the body, which is typical of an autoimmune disorder.
With MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks the brain and spinal cord, specifically the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath is what protects the nerves. The damage to this tissue and the nerves themselves causes disruptions to nerve signalling.
MS symptoms differ between individuals as they can present anywhere in the body. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Having trouble walking
- Tingling and numbness
- Balance issues
- Bladder control issues
- Impaired vision
- Stiff or spasming muscles
- Coordination issues
- Cognitive issues
- This may include difficulties with learning or planning.
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for MS, but there are treatments available to help with symptom management and overall control of the condition. These include:
- Steroid medicines
- This is a common treatment option for relapses, as it can help increase the speed of recovery.
- Disease-modifying therapies
- This type of treatment is used to reduce relapse episodes.
- In people with relapse remititng MS, this treatment option may help lessen the progression of disabilities. This may also occur in people with primary or secondary progressive MS, but only if they experience relapses.
- Symptom-specific treatments
- As the symptoms of MS vary widely, each symptom may be treated with its own targeted approach.
Treatments vary depending on the type of MS a person has and which symptoms they experience. Reseaech is underway to find more treatment options for those with the progressive types of MS.
Misconceptions and stigma surrounding MS
There are many misconceptions that surround MS, which can lead to feelings of stigma for sufferers. One of the most common misconceptions is that all people with MS end up in a wheelchair. This is untrue, as only around one in four people with this condition will require the use of a wheelchair. Many people also believe that MS only impacts old people, when in fact the most common ages for diagnosis are from 20 to 50.
As women are more susceptible to this condition, the topic of pregnancy is also often misconstrued. First of all, MS symptoms are actually likely to improve, not deteriorate, while pregnant, and pregnancy issues due to MS are not common. Additionally, while the risk of an MS sufferer’s child developing MS is slightly higher than usual, it still remains very low (around 3%).
People often believe that MS stands in the way of most regular activities, such as work or exercise. In reality, as long as it’s deemed safe by a doctor, people with MS can continue to work, exercise, and complete other tasks and activities. In fact, exercising in a way that doesn’t overwork the body can actually help improve some MS symptoms.
Raising awareness of MS
Raising awareness of MS is important as there are many misconceptions about the condition which can hinder people from getting the help they need. For example, a young person who isn’t aware that MS could be the cause of their symptoms may not reach out for help. This could be detrimental, as treating it early can have a massive impact on how the condition progresses over time. A lack of awareness may also cause sufferers to feel alone or embarrassed which could deter them from seeking medical assistance.
There are many ways to show support and raise awareness of this condition. For example participating in national and international awareness campaigns is a great way to get involved. National MS Awareness Week runs from the 25th April to 1st May every year. There’s also World MS Awareness Day, which occurs annually on 30th March. Wearing orange clothing or an orange ribbon, sharing useful information across social media and within peer groups, and raising funds for MS charities are all helpful ways to support the cause.
MS support groups
MS can be a difficult condition to live with, and only those who have it can understand what it feels like. This is why support groups for MS sufferers are so vital, as they provide a network of people who can understand each other and support each other in ways nobody else can. There are local, regional, national, and international groups for this condition, which join together both virtually and face to face. The most beneficial type of support group depends on the preferences, needs, and social comfort levels of each individual living with the condition.
MS Society offers a directory their local support groups all over the UK, and people can search for their nearest group by simply entering their town or post code. This charity also offers virtual support options. Alternatively, MS Trust offers a wealth of support groups and resources on their website, including a map of MS services and their own online support group.
There are also many social media groups run by and for people with MS, such as MS UK with 10K members, and People Living With MS Multiple Sclerosis with 9.1K members. Smaller scale groups also exist, such as Multiple Sclerosis UK, with 2.1K members.
These groups can help people with MS find new ways to cope with symptoms, new treatment options to try, new friends who understand them, and a network of support and resources to rely on. They can also help friends and family members of people living with MS by providing useful information and advice about the best ways to show support.