Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological condition which affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord.
It is believed to be an autoimmune disease, where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body. With MS, the outer casing that protects the nerves, (myelin) is mistaken as a foreign body and attacked by the immune system -think of it as a mouse chewing on electrical wiring.
The ‘sclerosis’, which means scarring or hardening of small patches of tissue, interrupts the messages sent from the brain to other parts of the body, while ‘multiple’ refers to the fact the attack can happen in more than one place.
It affects roughly 100,000 people in the UK, and is nearly three times more common in women than men. Most people are diagnosed in their 20s and 30s, however that’s not to say people are diagnosed before or after this age.
The nature of the condition can be unpredictable and vary from person to person, as Jo Cole, who lives with the condition, explains in HuffPost UK’s new blog series ‘How It Feels’: “What if every morning when you woke up you didn’t know how your body would behave? Which bits would work? Which bits you could trust?
“This is how life with multiple sclerosis (MS) can be.”
There are many symptoms associated with MS. Some will develop and worsen over time, while for others they’ll come and go.
According to the Multiple Sclerosis Trust the most common symptoms are fatigue (overwhelming exhaustion), stumbling, unusual feelings in the skin such as numbness or tingling, slowed thinking and vision problems.
The NHS lists other symptoms as:
:: muscle spasms, stiffness and weakness
:: mobility problems
:: problems with thinking, learning and planning
:: depression and anxiety
:: sexual problems
:: bladder problems
:: bowel problems
:: speech and swallowing difficulties
MS is difficult to diagnose. Doctors will have to rule out other health conditions before a final MS diagnosis meaning you might have to undergo numerous tests.
The MS Trust says it is “sometimes a question of watching and waiting to see how your symptoms develop as this can help distinguish MS from other conditions”.
If you are diagnosed, your neurologist might mention relapsing remitting MS, primary progressive MS or secondary progressive MS. Relapsing remitting MS refers to people who have distinct attacks of symptoms that fade away either partially or completely. While primary progressive MS means symptoms gradually worsen over time rather than appearing as sudden attacks.
Some people with relapsing remitting MS may go onto develop secondary progressive MS. In this type of MS, symptoms gradually worsen over time without obvious attacks. Some people continue to have infrequent relapses during this stage. According to the NHS, roughly half of people with relapsing remitting MS will develop secondary progressive MS within 15-20 years after diagnosis.
Unfortunately there’s no cure for MS but there are ways to manage the condition. Treatment will often depend on the type of MS a person has, so if they have relapses of MS symptoms they may be treated with steroid medication (either given as tablets at home or injections in hospital).
They might also be offered treatment to tackle the individual symptoms they’re experiencing. For example, people with fatigue may be prescribed amantadine (a drug typically given to ease symptoms of Parkinson’s), while muscle spasms can be treated with physiotherapy. (More on individual treatment options here.)
If you have relapsing remitting MS, disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) aim to reduce the number and severity of relapses by reducing the amount of damage and scarring to the layer which surrounds a person’s nerves. According to the MS Society there is now one disease-modifying therapy that can help people with primary progressive MS. (More on DMTs here.)