Take control of managing Multiple Sclerosis
The month of March is designated as Multiple sclerosis (MS) Awareness Month, set aside to push MS into the spotlight educating the public on this disease and for funding research and support for those living with MS. MS is a disease of the central nervous system and is often unpredictable in nature.
Worldwide, 2.5 million people live with this progressive autoimmune disease. At its best, a person will look and feel completely normal experiencing no symptoms and believe they’ve beaten it. But then reality comes back to life resulting in a range of signs from mild to more severe reminding you it has not gone away.
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and body.
As MS methodically wears away at the coverings that protect the nerve cells affecting an individual’s brain and spinal cord, it can manifest itself with certain symptoms. And that’s part of the problem. There are so many other conditions which cause similar symptoms that it may take years or even decades before a proper and accurate diagnosis of MS is made.
Generally diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, MS occurs two to three times more often in women than in men and Caucasians of northern European ancestry are more likely to develop it than other races. Children as young as 2 and individuals as old as 75, have been diagnosed with this disease.
How is it diagnosed?
Only doctors can diagnosis MS but it’s not easy. There are no symptoms, physical findings or laboratory tests that can, by themselves, determine if a person has MS. However, several strategies, along with diagnostic criteria have been developed and revised by experts in the field giving new hope in helping clinicians in making an accurate and timely diagnosis. These strategies include a careful medical history, a neurologic exam, and various tests including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), evoked potentials (EP), and spinal fluid analysis are proving valuable in helping reach a definitive diagnosis.
The criteria for a definitive diagnosis of MS must include the following:
· Evidence of damage in at least two separate areas of the central nervous system(CNS), which include the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves
· Evidence that the damage occurred at different points in time
· Ruling out of all other possible diagnoses
Symptoms of MS
One of the frustrating reasons why an MS diagnosis can take a long time is because of the symptoms associated with it. Many symptoms of MS can also be symptoms of many other diseases. In addition, no two people with MS have the same symptoms and the symptoms can fluctuate or change over time.
Here is a list of symptoms associated with MS. Most of these symptoms can be managed very effectively with medication, rehabilitation, and other management strategies:
· Fatigue – Almost 80% of people with MS will have this symptom and it may be the most prominent symptom they have. The fatigue can be overwhelming enough to significantly interfere with normal functioning at home or work.
· Numbness or tingling – Often the first symptoms experienced, numbness of the face, body or extremities of the arms or legs are common among those with MS.
· Weakness – This symptom is due to deconditioning of muscles not being used from damage to nerves that stimulate muscles.
· Dizziness and vertigo – Feeling off balance, lightheaded or less commonly having the sensation of their surrounding spinning (vertigo) can be other symptoms noticed.
· Sexual problems – Both men and women with MS may experience difficulty achieving orgasm or have loss of libido. Men may have reduced sensation in the penis and difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection. For women, a reduced sensation in the vaginal/clitoral area, vaginal dryness or painfully heightened sensation could be some symptoms they have.
· Pain - Up to 55% of people with MS have pain as pain syndromes are common in the condition.
· Walking or gait difficulties – This symptom is related to several factors including weakness, spasticity, loss of balance, sensory deficit and fatigue.
· Spasticity – This refers to a feeling of stiffness along with a wide range of involuntary muscle spasms, commonly noticed in the legs.
· Vision problems – Often the first symptom for many people with MS, blurred vision, poor contrast or color vision, and pain on eye movement should be evaluated as soon as possible.
· Bladder problems – Up to 80% of people with MS will have bladder issues. This could include frequency or urgency of urination, hesitancy in starting urination, frequent nighttime urination or nocturia, incontinence, and inability to empty the bladder completely.
· Depression – Considered one of the most common symptoms found in people with MS, clinical depression has been found to affect those with the disease much more so than many other chronic conditions.
Anyone who is experiencing any of the above symptoms should schedule an appointment their primary care physician to be evaluated. Keep a diary of what symptoms you are experiencing, how frequently they occur and the severity of them. The more information you provide to your doctor, the quicker and more accurate of a diagnosis your doctor can provide for you.
How can someone with MS manage symptoms?
While there are no cures yet for MS, there are steps one can take to better control and manage symptoms this disease brings. Here are several ways someone with MS can do this:
· Get sufficient vitamin D
Researchers now have a better understanding of how vitamin D deficiency negatively affects the immune system in people with MS. Anyone with MS should have their vitamin D levels checked and if deficient, discuss with their doctor if they recommend a vitamin D supplement and what amount to take. One study showed that taking a vitamin D supplement helped with the immune system in people with MS but more research is still needed. In the meantime, be outdoors more often to soak up sunlight which helps the body make vitamin D. What is the best time of day to be outdoors improving vitamin D synthesis? When your shadow is its shortest – at 12 noon. Good food sources of vitamin D include salmon, egg yolks, fortified breakfast cereals, and milk.
· Stay physically active
Exercise is important for anyone with MS. Getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity three times a week (preferably daily) is good for the nervous system. It helps maintain muscles mass and strength, balance, coordination, and provides an overall sense of well-being. There is no specific type of exercise for someone with MS to do – good choices though, include swimming, walking, or yoga.
· Eat heart healthy foods
While there is no particular way eating for MS, choosing heart-healthy foods is a good start. Foods that meet these criteria include leafy greens and other veggies, whole grains, nuts, lean protein, and cutting down on fats and processed foods. Taking this initiative to eat healthier is key to maintaining good health overall and is especially crucial when you have a chronic condition.
· Don’t smoke
If you smoke, quitting is one of the most important things you can do. Smoking worsens disability in MS. It also increases the risk of infection, heart disease, and cancers while worsening MS symptoms. There are numerous ways to quit smoking – talk to your doctor first and find the support you need to stop the habit.