Being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) is a life-altering event. While it explains the unsteady legs, slurred words and worsening vision, it also means the patient must now adjust to living with a chronic, sometimes debilitating illness.
Doctors don’t really understand what causes MS, a degenerative disease of the brain and central nervous system. In MS, the body’s immune system attacks the myelin cells that encase our nerves the way insulation protects wires. Scleroses—that is, scar tissue—replace the myelin, causing the damaged nerves to relay faulty impulses to and from the brain.
MS usually strikes young adults between ages 20 and 40 and afflicts twice as many women as men. The illness appears to run in families—children or siblings of patients have a 20- to 40-fold higher risk than the general population.
Though the disease is incurable, medicine and self-care therapy help many of the estimated 300,000–400,000 Americans with MS stay productive and independent.
MS symptoms range from mild and nonprogressing to severe and increasingly disabling. However, in most patients MS causes one or two episodes every few years, which usually include vision and bladder control problems, pain, unsteady gait and slurred speech. An attack can last several weeks or months before subsiding.
While self-care regimens occasionally change with the patient’s prognosis, most consist of:
- Dietary changes, including vitamins or supplements (with a doctor’s approval, of course) to boost the immune system and adequate dietary fiber to fight constipation, a common MS-related side effect
- Staying well rested by getting plenty of sleep and taking breaks during the day. Fatigue is one of MS’s most debilitating symptoms
- Aerobic activity, such as walking, cycling or stair climbing to improve muscle tone, balance and coordination and to fight depression and raise self-esteem
- Physical and occupational therapy to help you stay self-sufficient and be able to handle the rigors of your job
- Counseling and support groups to relieve depression and stress
Doctors treat MS with a variety of effective medications. These include beta interferon, a genetically engineered protein. Self-injected, it regulates immune function, fights viral infection and reduces flare-ups as much as 30 percent.
Glatiramer, an alternative to beta interferon, helps curb the body’s attack on myelin, although how this occurs isn’t clear. An immune-suppressant treatment, mitoxantrone, is used for advanced or chronic MS. When a patient can’t be helped with any of these medications, the monoclonal antibody natalizumab is sometimes prescribed. And corticosteroids, swallowed or injected, help shorten flare-ups and reduce inflammation in tender nerve tissue. Muscle relaxants, taken orally, stop painful and often uncontrollable muscle spasms, especially in the legs, while antidepressants and certain antiviral and narcolepsy drugs act as mild stimulants.
Effective therapy requires dedication, patience and a firm belief in being able to overcome adversity. Doctors say a positive attitude and working closely with healthcare providers is one of the best prescriptions for coping with MS.