Understanding Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease that affects the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). It is classified as an autoimmune disease, meaning that the immune system – which usually protects us from harm – attacks healthy tissues and cells. In MS, it attacks myelin, the protective layer around nerves. This results in inflammation and damage, which in turn disrupts or distorts the transmission of nerve impulses (messages) and causes the symptoms of MS.
According to the MS Society, Canada has one of the world’s highest rates of MS – it’s estimated that in one in every 385 Canadians lives with the disease. MS is most often diagnosed in people aged 20 to 49.
What causes MS?
The cause or causes of MS are not known, but biological, genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors may play a role in this unpredictable disease. There is not yet a cure for MS; however, improved symptom management and disease-modifying therapies have enabled most people to have a normal or near-normal life span.
How many types of MS are there?
There are four types of multiple sclerosis:
- Relapsing-remitting: This type alternates between periods of recovery and relapse (attacks, flare-ups or exacerbations of symptoms). During relapses, existing symptoms can worsen and new symptoms may appear. About 85% of people who have MS are diagnosed with this type.
- Secondary-progressive: This diagnosis occurs when symptoms of relapsing-remitting MS worsen, and the recovery and relapse periods become less distinct. About half of people with relapsing-remitting MS experience a worsening of symptoms within 10 to 20 years of diagnosis.
- Primary-progressive: In this type of MS, symptoms become progressively worse from the beginning, with growing disability. There may be stable periods or temporary improvement, but no remission.
- Progressive-relapsing: This is the least common type of MS. The disease worsens steadily from the beginning, with or without periods of recovery.
What are the symptoms of MS?
The symptoms of MS vary depending on how the central nervous system is affected. People living with MS may experience:
- balance problems or dizziness
- poor coordination
- muscle weakness
- sensory impairment (numbness, tingling)
- increased sensitivity to heat
- vision problems
- speech or swallowing difficulties
- sexual dysfunction
- bladder and bowel problems
- cognitive impairment, such as memory problems
Many people can manage these symptoms with interventions such as medication, rehabilitation therapies, mobility aids or lifestyle changes.
How is MS diagnosed?
MS is not diagnosed with just one test. Physicians consider a patient’s medical history and perform a neurological exam and perhaps other tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to look for disease activity and rule out other conditions.
How is MS treated?
Treatment for MS is individualized and may include different types of therapies.
Relapse management therapies suppress the inflammation that causes attacks, reducing their severity and duration and preventing damage to nerve fibres. Disease-modifying therapies, available for relapsing-remitting and secondary-progressive MS, can slow progression and reduce relapses.
Other medications can help manage symptoms such as pain or fatigue. Some people with MS use complementary and alternative medicine; however, these therapies are not well supported by scientific research.
Many people with MS find it beneficial to receive rehabilitation therapy, such as physiotherapy, to maintain or improve their mobility and physical function. Speech/language pathologists can help with problems with speaking or swallowing, and mental health professionals can assist with mood and cognitive issues.
To learn more about MS treatment, visit the MS Society website.
Living independently with MS
Over time, some people with MS find it challenging to manage household tasks or activities of daily living. Home care services such as nursing, personal care, housekeeping and meal preparation can make daily life easier and help individuals continue to live safely at home for as long as possible.
Bayshore Home Health offers a wide range of home care services to help Canadians live independently for as long as possible. Contact us at 1-877-289-3997 for details.