Multiple sclerosis: An autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system which consist of the brain, optic nerves, and all the nerves in the spinal cord.
OK, Tell Me A Bit More Please...
Our immune system is supposed to protect our body from foreign substances such as viruses or disease. An autoimmune disease is basically when an immune system produces anti-bodies that attack the very flesh and bones it should be protecting.
Multiple Sclerosis in particular is an autoimmune disease that specifically attacks the central nervous system. What is the central nervous system you may ask? It's basically where all the signals from your brain travel through nerves to control your body.
Again, in the simplest of terms think of it like this: when I want to move my arm an electric signal is sent from my brain to my arm through nerves like the wires of an electronic device. Now the central nervous system doesn't include all your nerves, just the nerves in your spinal cord and brain.
Myelin and Nerves, They Are Like an Electrical Wire
Now here's the important part: the nerves in our body are very much like an electric wire just as our body is very much like a machine. A machine works by sending electrical signals across a copper wire to make various motors and devices function. Our bodies work by sending an electric signal across our nerves to make various muscles contract. Our nerves and the wires of a machine have one very important thing in common. They are both protected by insulation.
If you were to cut the power cord to your vacuum cleaner in half (while unplugged of course) you would notice it has a copper center surrounded by a layer of insulation, typically rubber. This allows electricity to flow across the copper wire without electrocuting you while you try to clean. If there was no insulation or rubber and you were to plug your vacuum in to the wall you would find that your vacuum cleaner would not function properly. The electric current would not be able to flow in the proper direction, instead the appliance would short-circuit, not to mention probably kill you so please, do not try this at home. Just take my word for it, you won't find anything else in the cord of your vacuum cleaner besides a boring copper wire.
Our nerves also have a layer of insulation, this is known as "Myelin". Myelin is a dielectric layer of fatty tissue that insulates our nerves, this is known as the Myelin Sheath. Immune systems belonging to people with MS attack this fatty tissue destroying the nerve's insulation and protection. I have illustrated this in the picture to your left by stripping some electric wire just as I explained in the vacuum cleaner example. Think of the copper wire as the nerve and the stripped rubber insulation as deteriorated Myelin.
As a result of damaged Myelin, nerves are exposed and so, people with MS experience a wide variety of symptoms depending on what nerves have been damaged. When checking for multiple sclerosis, the first step is usually taking an MRI. This is kind of like an x-ray except the results are 3-D, they show depth rather than a two-dimensional image. Typically in patients with MS an MRI will show what are known as lesions or spots on the brain. These spots are where Myelin has been damaged and depending on what area of the brain these spots are you can have many different symptoms. For example, a lot of people with MS have vision problems as I do. If you look at my MRI you will see that I have lesions on what is known as the Occipital lobe where the signal from our eyes is interpreted. This means that the electric signals in this area of my brain are not flowing properly and as a result my eyes are not functioning the way they should. Most people have Myelin damage along their optic nerves which can cause Optic Neuritis.
Again, think about how I said earlier that if I want to move my arm it requires my brain to send an electric signal across a nerve to my arm. If the insulation is damaged along the path of nerves from my brain to my arm then my arm will not work the way it should which is why in my case I have a loss of fine motor control in my left hand at the moment. Somewhere, either in my spinal cord or on my brain the nerves that control my hand are exposed due to damaged Myelin. The electric signal that I try to send to my hand is short-circuiting, resulting in malfunction.
To confirm an MS diagnosis, a spinal tap is required. A spinal tap procedure, or lumbar puncture as it is sometimes called, involves extracting fluid from the spinal column to use for testing. What they are basically looking for, is Myelin protein, or broken off pieces of Myelin floating around in the extracted spinal sluid. Keep in mind, that though a positive result can confirm Multiple Sclerosis, a negative result does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of Multiple Sclerosis because it just means they didn't find any pieces of Myelin in the sample they collected.
List of Common Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms:
- Pins and Needles
- Sever Fatigue
- Loss of balance
- Restless Leg Syndrome
- Lhermites Sign
- Difficulty Sleeping
- Foot Drop
- MS Hug
- Depth Perception Issues
- Coordination Issues
- Muscle spasms/tremors
- Muscle Spasticity
- Numbness or abnormal sensation in any area
- Problems moving arms or legs
- Problems walking
- Weakness in one or more arms or legs
- Constipation and stool leakage
- Difficulty beginning to urinate
- Frequent need to urinate
- Strong urge to urinate
- Urine leakage (incontinence)
- Double vision
- Eye discomfort
- Uncontrollable rapid eye movements
- Vision loss (usually affects one eye at a time)
- Facial pain
- Painful muscle spasms
- Tingling, crawling, or burning feeling in the arms and legs
- Decreased attention span, poor judgment, and memory loss
- Cognitive Dysfunction
- Depression or feelings of sadness
- Dizziness and balance problems
- Hearing loss
- Problems with erections
- Problems with vaginal lubrication
- Slurred or difficult-to-understand speech
- Trouble chewing and swallowing
Of course these are just some of the common symptoms and there can be many more such as the loss of taste and episodes of severe hiccups I have experienced. Uncommon but it happens!
MS Cure and Treatment?
Unfortunately there is currently no cure for Multiple Sclerosis though it seems as though they may be close to finding an answer! Right now, we are lucky enough to have what are known as “Disease Modifying Treatments" (DMT's) that can slow down or alter the course of the disease. They are long term medications that are not meant to treat your symptoms but instead try to prevent them from even occurring by reducing the number of flair ups or relapses an MS patient experience. So it's good to know that though there is not currently a cure for MS, most people with this horrible disease have a way of controlling and maintaining their Multiple Sclerosis.
What Is An Exacerbation?
Flair ups, exacerbations, what are they and how often will an MS patient experience them? Exacerbations or flair ups are any time your symptoms pop up but an exacerbation is sometimes considered by some people to be a period of time where your symptoms are actually disabling whereas a flair up is sometimes considered to be more minor as in, "I spent to much time in the heat and now my vision is a tad blurry". As far as how many exacerbations or flair ups a patient will experience, well, there is no definite answer to this question which drove me nuts during my diagnosis!
Would this be a monthly thing? Yearly? How does it work?? Well it's different with everyone who has Relapsing Remitting MS because everyone's degrees of aggressiveness when it comes to their MS can vary. They say it's typically more aggressive in people who are younger in age. Depending on your treatment you may have a flair up every month, every other month, every six months, every year, every few years, etc. It's one of those things where you have to just kind of wait and see how it hits you. I had about three major exacerbations during my first year and many small incidents of symptom flair ups in between each one which included minor symptoms like pins and needles or numbness.
How You Will Beat MS
Being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis can seem scary at first but what your actually feeling fearful of is the unknown. There are so many questions associated with this disease and the best thing you can do is educate yourself about it! Learn, learn, learn, and soon you will no longer fear MS, you will own it! I can honestly say that Multiple Sclerosis has changed my life in a great way as I now can see what I have taken for granted in the past, I respect my body and health much more than before, and now I have found my means of making a difference in this world! I will do everything I can to help others with MS and even if I change just one single life then I have accomplished my mission.
"You don't understand, I'm not stuck with MS, MS IS STUCK WITH ME!"