For months, Annie thought the numbness and weakness in her right arm was merely a sign of poor fitness or lack of sleep, hallmarks of stressful days juggling her job and young family. When she began having difficulty seeing clearly, she assumed it was time for reading glasses.
But Annie’s blurry vision and weak arm weren’t products of her busy life. They were early signs of multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic and potentially debilitating disease that affects the central nervous system and impairs strength, sensation, vision and muscle control and coordination. An estimated 400,000 people in the United States suffer from MS, and two to three times as many women are affected as men. The first symptoms typically strike between ages 20 and 50.
Experts believe MS is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the myelin sheath, a protective fatty substance that covers nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. As this sheath is damaged, hardened patches of scar tissue form, which block or delay nerve impulses and result in the following symptoms:
- numbness, weakness or spasticity in one or more limbs
- blurred or double vision, partial or complete vision loss or pain with eye movement
- tingling, pain or electric-shock sensations
- dizziness or vertigo
- tremors, unsteady balance or gait and partial paralysis
If you experience any of these signs, see your healthcare provider for an evaluation. Many conditions can produce similar symptoms, and because no one test can diagnose MS, your provider will conduct several assessments, which may include:
- a neurological exam to assess your reflexes, muscle strength and tone, and sensitivity to heat, cold and vibration
- a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to detect MS lesions
- a spinal tap to check for abnormal white blood cell or protein levels
- an evoked potential test to measure your brain’s electrical signals
MS symptoms are often unpredictable. They can vary from person to person and from time to time in the same person. They can be exacerbated by stress, heat or cold. The disease can range from mild, chronic illness with occasional symptom flare-ups to a progressively worsening condition with few if any remission periods.
Early treatment can help alter the disease’s course and reduce symptoms’ severity. In addition to physical and occupational therapy to maintain muscle control, your doctor may prescribe medication to block attacks on myelin and slow deterioration. Other drugs can help fight infection, regulate the immune system, reduce nerve inflammation, ease muscle spasms and combat fatigue and depression.
An MS diagnosis can feel devastating, and you may fear it’s a short trip from diagnosis to wheelchair. However, with early treatment, most people with MS don’t face that fate or become severely disabled and can expect a normal life span.