Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive neurological condition that affects the transfer of messages from the central nervous system to the rest of the body.
It involves the immune system attacking sheaths of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord which results in nerve damage and scar tissue. This damage means that the brain can no longer send signals to the rest of the body effectively.
Types of multiple sclerosis
There are three types of multiple sclerosis, the differences lie in the way the disease affects the body over time:
Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS)
The most common form of multiple sclerosis (with about 85% of people with MS being initially diagnosed with this) is relapsing-remitting MS. People who are living with RRMS experience periods where new symptoms appear. These are called relapses, flare-ups or exacerbations and fade away completely or at least partially.
Primary-progressive MS (PPMS)
PPMS is not a very common form of multiple sclerosis, with it affecting only 10–15% of people. This form is characterised by the first symptoms, such as problems with walking, gradually progressing rather than the person experiencing relapses.
Secondary-progressive MS (SPMS)
As a secondary stage of MS, SPMS usually occurs after the relapsing-remitting form. However, with this type of multiple sclerosis the symptoms steadily worsen over time and the likelihood of relapses which then get better is lessened.
What causes MS?
While the exact causes of multiple sclerosis are not completely clear, there are some possible factors. It is thought that the condition comes from a mixture of inherited genes and outside causes which can trigger it.
Some possible factors that have been suggested as reasons behind MS are:
- Smoking – studies have shown that the chemicals in cigarette smoke can affect the immune system, with smokers being twice as likely to develop multiple sclerosis
- Infections – some viruses may trigger MS, a common one being the Epstein Barr virus which had previously been linked to the condition
- Lack of vitamin D – recently, there has been more and more research into the connection between low levels of vitamin D in people who have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis
- Being overweight – being overweight as a child or young adult has been linked to later developing MS, due to obesity causing inflammation and forcing the immune system to become overactive
Signs and symptoms of MS
Due to the various types of MS, there is a long list of symptoms of the condition. These can be unpredictable and, as some people show different symptoms during relapses, it can be difficult to pinpoint exact signs of multiple sclerosis.
However, some of the most common symptoms are:
- Issues with mobility
- Blurred vision, sometimes even temporary blindness
- A numbing or ‘pins and needles’ sensation
- Cognitive impairment
If you are worried you are showing these signs, arrange an appointment with your GP to discuss. It is important to note that these symptoms are shared by many other conditions and so they do not necessarily point towards multiple sclerosis.
How is multiple sclerosis treated?
While there is currently no cure for MS, there is treatment available to help speed up the recovery between relapses, slow the progression or simply manage the symptoms. While being supported by different medical professionals, people with multiple sclerosis can have a good quality of life and receive specific treatment to help with their needs.
People who have been diagnosed with MS may need some time to adapt to daily life, but can go on to live full and healthy lives with the right support.
Treatment for relapses
Disease modifying therapies (DMTs) can slow the progression of MS and can also limit the amount and severity of relapses.
Managing a relapse usually involves a five-day course of steroid medication which the individual can take at home or is administered through injections in the hospital for three to five days.
These steroids can help to speed up the recovery time from relapses but will not prevent the chance of a further flare-up.
Treatment for specific symptoms
There is also a range of treatments available to help with specific symptoms. People who are living with multiple sclerosis may be prescribed medication to manage fatigue, visual issues, muscle spasms or stiffness and mobility problems.
There are also medicines available that may slow the progression of MS, helping to reduce the amount of damage to the nerve sheath which is often associated with relapses.
However, these therapies are not suitable for every person with multiple sclerosis, only those who meet a certain criteria and have RRMS or SPMS will see the benefits.