What is Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) involves an immune-mediated process in which an abnormal response of the body’s immune system is directed against the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. The exact antigen — or target that the immune cells are sensitized to attack — remains unknown, which is why MS is considered by many experts to be “immune-mediated” rather than “autoimmune.”
Within the CNS, the immune system attacks myelin–the fatty substance that surrounds and insulates the nerve fibers — as well as the nerve fibers themselves. The damaged myelin forms scar tissue (sclerosis), which gives the disease its name. When any part of the myelin sheath or nerve fiber is damaged or destroyed, nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord are distorted or interrupted, producing a wide variety of symptoms.
What Causes MS?
While the cause (etiology) of MS is still not known, scientists believe that the interaction of several different factors may be involved. To answer this important question, studies are ongoing in the areas of immunology (the science of the body’s immune system), epidemiology (the study of patterns of disease in the population) and genetics. Scientists are also studying infectious agents that may play a role. Understanding what causes MS will speed the process of finding more effective ways to treat it and — ultimately — cure it, or even prevent it from occurring in the first place.
What Are Typical MS Symptoms?
MS symptoms are variable and unpredictable. No two people have exactly the same symptoms, and each person’s symptoms can change or fluctuate over time. One person might experience only one or two of the possible symptoms while another person experiences many more. Symptoms can include mild to severe fatigue, loss of vision, numbness and tingling, dizziness, muscle weakness and spasticity, walking difficulties, bladder and bowel problems, and cognitive impairment. MS symptoms are often invisible. You may see someone in a wheelchair who otherwise looks young and healthy, but may not be able to walk a step, see more than a few inches in front of her, or feel half of her body.
Is There a Cure?
Not yet. There are now FDA-approved medications that have been shown to “modify” the course of MS by reducing the number of relapses and delaying progression of disability to some degree. In addition, many therapeutic and technological advances are helping people manage symptoms. Advances in treating and understanding MS are made every year, and progress in research to find a cure is very encouraging. There are currently several disease-modifying drugs that help slow down the progression of MS, reduce the frequency of relapses, and reduce inflammation in the CNS caused by MS. In addition these medications that address the disease process, there are many medications and other strategies to manage MS symptoms such as spasticity, pain, bladder problems, fatigue, sexual dysfunction, weakness, and cognitive problems.
Is MS Fatal?
Far from it. Severe MS symptoms can have an impact on someone’s overall health, which may decrease life expectancy as a result. However, most people with MS go on after diagnosis to live very full and often active lives. “MSers” can have children (I have two very healthy and active boys), hold normal jobs, run a business (I manage three from home), play sports or a musical instrument, drive cars (I use hand controls), travel (I fly with my electric scooter), and attend concerts and sporting events just like anyone else. Some symptoms and effects of MS may require a considerable amount of advance planning, modifications, and flexibility. However, there is no shortage of very understanding and accommodating people who want to see individuals with any kind of disability succeed and enjoy a long life.
How Can I Help?
Organizations like the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) are working tirelessly to fund research at universities, hospitals, and institutions around the world. The ultimate goal of that research is to find a cure for MS, and you can help first and foremost by donating. You can also get involved in a number of events with your friends and family to raise money for the NMSS and awareness about MS, like WalkMS, BikeMS, amd MuckFest However, you can also help just by learning more about MS and understanding that people who are diagnosed with this disease are capable of just about anything.
I also recently formed The PreJax Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated solely to providing scholarships to students who either have a parent with MS or have MS themselves. We just obtained 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, so all donations made to help fund our scholarships are tax deductible. Please visit our website at www.ThePreJaxFoundation.com to learn more, donate, or apply!