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Living with multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is a disease that affects the nervous system. The symptoms vary from person to person and can change over time. Medicine and physical therapy can help.

Your nervous system has two main parts—the brain and the spinal cord. Both contain nerve fibers that conduct electrical impulses and help the nervous system work properly.

It's here that the disease multiple sclerosis (MS) strikes. MS attacks myelin, the fatty tissue that surrounds nerve fibers. Myelin protects nerve fibers and helps them do their job. Without myelin, nerve fibers can't carry impulses to and from the brain.

Roots of the disease

The exact cause of MS isn't known, but it may be due to a mistaken attack on myelin by the body's own immune system, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS).

Anyone can get MS, but some people are more likely to have the disease. They include:

  • Women. MS affects women three times as often as men.
  • People with northern European ancestry, though MS occurs in most ethnic groups.
  • People who live far from the equator.

How do you know?

The symptoms of MS will vary depending on what part of the myelin sheath gets damaged. Symptoms can vary from person to person and one person's symptoms may even change over time. According to the NMSS, symptoms may include:

  • Tingling or numbness.
  • Weakness and fatigue.
  • Coordination and balance problems.
  • Trouble seeing and involuntary rapid eye movement.
  • Muscle tremors or stiffness.
  • Pain and itching.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Bowel or bladder trouble.
  • Memory, judgment or reasoning problems.
  • Sexual problems.

If you have symptoms, talk to your doctor. To diagnose MS, your doctor may give you a neurological exam and a magnetic resonance imaging scan to take pictures of your brain and spinal cord.

Life after diagnosis

MS affects each person's life differently. Some common patterns of MS include:

Relapsing-remitting MS. People with this pattern of MS have attacks that either bring on new symptoms or make the existing symptoms worse. These attacks are often followed by periods of remission in which most or all of the symptoms ease up.

Primary progressive MS. With this form there are few or no severe attacks. Instead, symptoms grow steadily worse over time.

Secondary progressive MS. People with secondary progressive MS have symptoms that start out as relapsing-remitting and then become primary progressive.

Relieving symptoms

There's no way to cure MS. But treatments and therapy can relieve symptoms.

Medications may help reduce the symptoms of MS in some people. Work with your doctor to develop a medicine plan that will meet your needs.

Physical therapy can strengthen weak muscles and improve coordination.

Occupational therapy can help you become more independent by teaching you ways to do daily activities despite limitations.

Speech therapy can improve your communication skills if MS affects your ability to talk.

Reviewed 1/6/2022

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