Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the nervous system that causes damage in the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath is the protective material of the brain's nerve cells, which, when damaged, blocks or slows down the transmission of messages between the brain and the other parts of the body. If left untreated, this may lead to complete and irreversible damage and deterioration of the nerve cells.
Early Warning Signs
Symptoms of MS vary greatly from one person to another depending which nerve fibers are damaged or demyelinated. Early symptoms may include blurred vision, weakness in one or more limbs, muscle stiffness, numbness in one part of the body, tingling sensations, thinking problems, and urinary problems.
Others also experience tremors, dizziness and fatigue. Most individuals, especially at the beginning stages of the disease, encounter relapses of the symptoms and then experience periods of partial or complete remission. During relapses, the symptoms may intensify. These relapses may be mild or devastating. As the disease progresses, significant damage can occur in the brain and result to complications such as seizures, paralysis, depression, cognitive impairment and permanent disability.
According to research, these symptoms occur because of the inflammation, lesions, and swelling that occur on the myelin sheath, thus causing abnormal transmission of electrical impulses through the nervous system and causing difficulties in motor skills. Those who are aged between 20 and 40 years old are at risk of developing the disease. In the United States, there are about 400,000 people diagnosed to have MS, most of them being young adults. The disease is also common among women.
The symptoms are not the same. They can also be tricky. In many individuals, MS starts with only one symptom, wherein these symptoms do not progress even after a few months or years. For others, the symptoms can worsen within weeks or months.
In addition, the signs may vary depending on the nerve fibers affected. For instance, if those nerves that carry signals to muscles are damaged, problems with movement may result. If those that carry sensory information are demyelinated, sensory problems come up. The signs may also be more severe when those affected with the disease are exposed to high temperatures, such as when having a hot bath, when with fever, or when living in places with very warm weather.
Research has established several patterns of the symptoms:
• Relapsing-Remitting, wherein there are alternating relapses and remissions. Relapses can occur without warning, such as when triggered by an infection while remissions may last for many months or years.
• Primary Progressive, where MS develops gradually. Here, there are no remissions or noticeable relapses, although there are cases when there are temporary interruptions in the progression of the disease.
• Secondary Progressive, which begins with relapsing-remitting pattern, and then followed by gradual advancement of the disease.
• Progressive Relapsing, which occurs when MS gradually progresses and then this is interrupted by sudden relapses.
Tests to Determine MS
Since a wide range of symptoms can occur, the best thing to do is to consult a medical doctor once these symptoms are experienced. When a person is suspected of the disease, a thorough evaluation of the nervous system is needed.
Usually, it is conducted through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which can detect areas where there is damage in the nerve fibers of the brain and the spinal cord.
Eye examination may also be done to determine whether the optic disk is inflamed or unusually pale, which indicates that there is inflammation of the optic nerve.
Other tests may also be conducted to obtain additional information, such as spinal tap and evoked responses.