What comes to mind when you hear the words multiple sclerosis (MS)? I knew nothing about it until one of my dearest friends received the diagnosis. I have watched this thing slowly take her life away, but now I know that it effects everyone quite differently. Even if you don’t experience Multiple sclerosis symptoms yourself, you at least know of others whose lives it has touched. Richard Pryor was diagnosed in 1986 and aptly described MS: “It was as if God had all this [stuff] left over from the other afflictions he created and decided to throw it all into one disease.” Creator of the Harry Potter world, J.K. Rowling, lost her mother to MS at the age of 45. So when Rowling turned 45, she donated $15.4 million to a MS research center in Scotland in hopes that the clinic would become “a world center for excellence in the field of regenerative neurology.”
Those last two words, “regenerative neurology,” are very telling when it comes to defining MS. So let’s look at what it is, the symptoms, and what can be done about it.
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society explains that there is “damage to the myelin coating around the nerve fibers in the central nervous system (CNS) and to the nerve fibers themselves [that] interferes with the transmission of nerve signals between the brain, spinal cord and the rest of the body. Disrupted nerve signals cause the symptoms of MS, which vary from one person to another and over time for any given individual, depending on where and when the damage occurs. The diagnosis of MS requires evidence of at least two areas of damage in the CNS, which have occurred at different times.”
This may sound a little familiar. It sounds similar to Parkinson’s, doesn’t it? There are definitely some similarities, but MS is an autoimmune condition that affects the nervous system. Parkinson’s, on the other hand, is a progressive neurological disorder affecting movement. And like other conditions that seem to have some radical effects on the central nervous system, such as fibromyalgia, there are no known causes of either MS or Parkinson’s. But what exactly do multiple sclerosis symptoms look like in a patient?
My sweet friend with the MS diagnosis explained to me that within 10 years she would be wheel-chair bound and blind, if she even lived that long. I thought maybe she was over-exaggerating. It turns out, that’s a possibility for sure. However, many people go on living with the symptoms and just functioning as best they can with this debilitating condition. Multiple sclerosis is clearly one of those conditions that doesn’t operate in a cookie-cutter way. In fact, its symptoms are highly varied and unpredictable. But let’s look at the most common symptoms:
- Numbness or tingling
- Dizziness and vertigo
- Sexual problems
- Emotional Changes
- Walking (gait) differences
- Vision problems
- Bladder problems
- Bowel problems
- Cognitive changes
Hey, fibromyalgia patients! Notice any similarities? Kind of creepy, isn’t it? This should be all the more reason for encouraging anyone experiencing these symptoms to focus on getting an accurate diagnosis as quickly as possible. There are some secondary symptoms that shouldn’t be left out of this discussion. Again, however, you may or may not experience these. Or maybe you will have a hodge-podge or the main symptoms and the secondary ones. Just remember how varied and unpredictable this condition is. Secondary symptoms as follows:
- Speech problems
- Breathing problems
- Swallowing problems
- Hearing loss
Treating Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms
Before you get your hopes up, this is one of those diseases that can only be managed, not cured. And it’s an on-going process of following the multiple sclerosis symptoms as you go along. In fact, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society explains that it’s never too early or late to access treatment. But they definitely encourage comprehensive and interdisciplinary care. They add, “the goal is comprehensive, coordinated care to manage the disease and promote comfort, function, independence, health and wellness.” The primary driver of your care will be your neurologist. They are specialists in the nervous system and are responsible for your official diagnosis. There are, of course, medications and rehabilitation strategies that can be used to manage your symptoms. Emotional support is huge part of this process too. My friend goes to an MS support group and it makes a big difference in her ability to cope with what’s happening to her. It also helps her husband to understand the bizarre symptoms and her inability to control them.
One thing to be prepared for is relapse. Fibromyalgia patients are most familiar with this concept in terms of a “flare” or “flare up.” And similar to fibro, MS relapses can range from mild to severe enough to debilitate your home and work functions.
Multiple sclerosis isn’t pretty. It’s relatively manageable for many patients, but so much depends on the patient and their experience with their symptoms. Variation and unpredictability are the hallmark of this disease, so you absolutely must do you research and learn what you’re up against.