MS Awareness Week

This is MS Awareness week and I thought I’d share what exactly MS is.  MS is short for Multiple Sclerosis and is primarily an auto-immune disease.  MS causes the white blood cells, the body’s defense against illness, to become over active and the white blood cells start attacking the body, specifically the nerves of the brain and spinal cord.

This is a picture of a nerve.  Each nerve has a protective covering called Myelin.  In the picture the Myelin is the blue oblong shapes.  Myelin not only protects the nerve, it also helps to transmit messages between the brain and the body.  MS causes the white blood cells to start attacking the Myelin, leaving behind scarring called plaques or lesions.  Depending on the severity of the scarring, the lesions can cause problems with the messages being transmitted.  Think of it like being on a cell phone.  A person who does not have MS is on a cell phone in an area that has really good coverage, lots of cell towers and everything is crystal clear.  A person who has MS is on a cell phone in an area with coverage that is iffy.  Some days the calls are crystal clear, some days there’s static making it hard to hear the person on the other end.  And, for some, the call gets dropped and no more calls can get through.

Because MS is a disease that attacks the nervous system that means the symptoms vary.  From WebMD:

Symptoms depend on which parts of the brain and spinal cord are damaged and how bad the damage is. Early symptoms may include:

  • Muscle problems. You may feel weak and stiff, and your limbs may feel heavy. You may drag your leg when you walk. You may drop things more than usual and be less coordinated.
  • Visual problems. Your vision may be blurred or hazy. You may have eyeball pain (especially when you move your eyes), blindness, or double vision. Optic neuritis-sudden loss of vision that is often painful-is a fairly common first symptom.
  • Sensory problems. You may feel tingling, a pins-and-needles sensation, or numbness. You may feel a band of tightness around your trunk or limbs or a feeling of electricity moving down your back and limbs.
  • Balance problems. You may feel lightheaded or dizzy or feel like you’re spinning 

Testing for MS isn’t really easy.  There is no one cut and dried test like, say for example, strep throat.  Instead MS is diagnosed more as a “last resort” diagnosis.  The tests conducted are done to rule out other diseases that present the same symptoms as MS or masquerade as MS.  The typical tests include an MRI, lumbar puncture, blood tests and possibly a VER (Visual Evoked Response) test. 

The MRI films are capable of detecting lesions, the damaged areas on the Myelin.  This is a picture of an MRI done on a patient with MS.  The bright white spots are the damaged areas caused by the attacking white blood cells.  An MRI seems to be the typical first test ordered by a neurologist.

Once the MRI confirms the presence of lesions, the blood tests and lumbar punctures are done primarily to rule out other diseases like Lupus or Meningitis.  The VER looks for abnormalities on the optic nerve.  That test consists of electrodes being placed on the scalp while the patient watches a small black square on a screen surrounded by black and white squares.  The test measures the optic nerves response to the shifting patterns on the screen.

Once a diagnosis of MS is confirmed medication is usually started.  The current medications are not for the intent of curing MS, there is a cure yet.  Nobody even knows yet what exactly causes MS.  Instead the medications are meant to prevent the disease from progressing.  Current medications in use are all shots and many patients take additional medications to assist with other symptoms like fatigue.  Fatigue is very common since the body is working so hard to get the needed messages through the damaged areas.  Remember my cell phone analogy?  Think of fatigue as shouting to be heard over the static on the line.

For more information on MS, please visit the MS Society’s website.

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