Last month was National Multiple Sclerosis Education and Awareness Month. Multiple sclerosis, or MS, as it is more commonly referred to, is a debilitating disease that attacks a person’s central nervous system. About 400,000 Americans suffer from this disease. It can take several different forms, which range from mild cases of numbness in limbs, to more severe cases which can cause blindness or paralysis. In effort to help raise money and awareness about this disease, national MS walks are being held throughout the United States. In this column, I hope to also raise awareness and to let readers know that there will be an MS walk held on May 1st at Long Branch Park in Liverpool.
The cause of MS is still unknown, but more common theories say it is a result of genetics or is caused by a virus. Doctors typically classify it as an autoimmune disease, whereby the body’s immune system attacks itself. According to the Mayo Clinic, it can be difficult to diagnosis, particularly at first, because symptoms can come and go, often disappearing for months at a time. Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed and the disease generally develops in people when they are between the ages of 20 and 50.
MS is thought to arise when the immune system attacks the protective sheath around nerve fiber in the brain and spine. This is what leads to weakened muscles, numbness and vision problems. Depending on which nerves are affected, symptoms from patient to patient vary greatly. Research shows the disease is more prevalent in countries that are further from the equator. According to articles based on a study out last week, many researchers believe that exposure to sunshine and lack of Vitamin D, which is naturally produced by exposure to the sun, could also be a factor in why the disease is more prevalent in North America. The Institute of Medicine recommends 600 international units (IUs) of vitamin D a day for adults ages 19 to 70. The recommendation increases to 800 IUs a day for adults age 71 and older. To find out more about vitamin D intake and the right amount for you, I would encourage you to talk to your doctor.
In diagnosing MS, doctors have relied on blood testing, as well as MRIs, and spinal taps—whereby a small sample of spinal fluid is removed for testing. Doctors have also used something called an evoked potential test. This test measures the electrical signals sent by your brain in response to stimuli after short electrical impulses are applied to your legs or arms. Generally, doctors must out rule all other possibilities before properly diagnosing the disease.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no cure for MS. Treatment focuses on strategies to treat attacks, to modify the course of the disease and to treat symptoms. Most commonly prescribed treatments are corticosteroids—which reduce inflammation that spikes during a relapse. Other drugs, known as beta interferons, appear to successfully slow the rate at which the disease progresses. Other treatments include physical therapy, muscle relaxants, medications to reduce fatigue and depression. A number of other drugs and procedures such as stem cell transplantation are being researched. Depression is a common side effect to MS, along with other mood changes. Other side effects include osteoporosis and pressure sores, which are damages to the skin due to long periods of immobility. Exercise, balanced diet, stress relievers such as meditation and deep breathing can also reduce symptoms.
The National MS Society has branches located throughout the United States including a branch in Syracuse. It will be hosting a MS walk in Syracuse on May 1st at Long Branch Park. For more information, or to sign up for the MS Walk, please visit their website or call the Upstate New York Chapter at (585) 271-0801. Support groups as well as online community connections can be found on their website.
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