The symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis are related to the myelin sheath, a fatty tissue which surrounds and protects the nerve fibers of the central nervous system, helps nerve fibers conduct electrical impulses. If the myelin begins to deteriorate, it leaves scar tissue called sclerosis. Myelin protects nerve fibers, and when it is destroyed or damaged, the ability of the nerves to conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain is disrupted.
Affecting more than 350,000 people in the U.S., this condition is diagnosed in people between the ages of 20 and 40. It is twice as likely to occur in Caucasians, more than any other group, and women are more likely than men to be affected by MS earlier in life. Later in life, the incidence of the disease in men and women is almost equal.
Researchers suspect that a foreign object such as a virus or an abnormal gene changes myelin so that the immune system perceives myelin as an intruder and attacks it. While some of the myelin may be repaired, it may disappear altogether, leaving nerves without a protective cover. Individuals with Multiple Sclerosis experience a physical inability to function, and the onset of attacks may range from mild to severe. These attacks may last for a brief time or continue for months to years.
Symptoms include impaired vision; muscle weakness; lack of coordination; muscle spasms, fatigue, numbness and pain. They may also experience loss of sensation, some form of speech impediment, tremors, dizziness, hearing loss, memory loss, and depression. As the disease progresses, MS individuals experience sexual dysfunction and reduction in bowel and bladder control.
Unfortunately, detecting MS requires an ongoing and detailed history of the individual to determine if the symptoms can definitively be diagnosed as MS. Three tests must be performed before the criteria are met: an MRI; an electro-physiological test; and an examination of the cerebro-spinal fluid which surrounds the spinal cord.
If the criteria are not met in any one of these tests, the individual is diagnosed with probable MS. It is not considered MS until the individual’s age is within the range; at least one attack affecting more than one organ has occurred; or there has been a progression of symptoms over a long time.
Once it is determine an individual has this disease, medications will be prescribed to manage attacks, symptoms, or both. Medications which alter the immune system, such as interferon, have been used to manage Multiple Sclerosis. To date, continuous research is ongoing in finding a cure for this dreaded disease.