The Mystery of Multiple Sclerosis

No known cause, no known cure.

That’s one of the frustrating parts of living with MS.  In the United States today, there are approximately 400,000 people with multiple sclerosis, and 200 more people diagnosed every week, according to the National MS Society.

Worldwide, MS affects an estimated 2.1 million people.

Whether you’re new to the world of MS or you’ve been here for decades, like I have, it’s good to be armed with answers to people’s questions about the disease.  While there is a lot of uncertainty, there is also a lot of known facts.

  • What it is. Multiple sclerosis disrupts communication between the brain and other parts of the body.
  • Symptoms. Signs of MS arise most often between the ages of 20 and 40. It often begins with blurred or double vision, color distortion, or even blindness in one eye. It can cause muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness or tingling, and difficulty with coordination and balance. MS can bring many other symptoms as well. Patients may endure years of uncertainty and multiple diagnoses while baffling symptoms come and go.
  • How it works. MS is a disease in which the body’s immune system inappropriately attacks the brain and spinal cord. Specifically, the immune system targets the fatty insulating material around nerves called myelin. When myelin is damaged, the messages that nerve cells send and receive can be interrupted.
  • Who gets it. Caucasians are more than twice as likely as others to develop MS, and women almost twice as likely as men. Geography also seems to play a role — the disease is much more prevalent in temperate climates with cold winters than in warmer or tropical regions. (Of course, I was born and raised in San Diego and I still got it!)  Your risk for MS seems to depend on where you live before the age of 15.  People moving after age 15 seem to maintain the risk level of the area where they grew up.
  • Risk factors. Some microbes, such as the Epstein-Barr virus, have been suspected of causing MS. But researchers haven’t been able to prove for certain that any microbes raise your chances of getting MS. Cigarette smoking, however, does appear to raise your risk.
  • Genes. Having a sibling with MS raises your risk of getting MS to about 4% to 5%; having an identical twin raises your risk to about 25% to 30%. These facts suggest a strong genetic component to MS. However, although some studies have linked specific genes to MS, most of the results haven’t been definitive.
  • Hope. There’s no cure yet for MS, but various therapies can slow the progression and frequency of exacerbations. Researchers are continuing to develop new and better therapies for MS, with several now in the pipeline.

The National MS Society also has great resources online if you or someone you know would like to learn more about MS, whether they’re newly diagnosed, suspect they may have it, or are simply curious.

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