Rise to the challenge of dealing with multiple sclerosis

We take a closer look at multiple sclerosis and how to live with the challenges the disease presents.

24 October 2006
by Marina Green

Thousands of South Africans are affected by Multiple Sclerosis (MS). It’s a chronic and progressive degenerative autoimmune disease, which affects the brain and the spinal cord, causing a range of symptoms that can make the condition difficult to diagnose.

Around 45 percent of people affected by MS live normal and productive lives. In about 40 percent of people, the disease may lead to some or other form or degree of disability.

Symptoms of MS

People with MS lose the insulating myelin coverings of nerve cells. Symptoms include difficulty walking, clumsiness, tremors, involuntary eye movements, speech disorders, memory and vision loss. Eyesight problems such as blurred or double vision, or blindness in one eye, are often the first warning signs. Sensations such as pins and needles, pain, or loss of feeling in the limbs are also common. MS cannot be cured and sufferers often experience periods where the symptoms worsen for a time, then disappear again for a while.

Causes and risk factors

MS is twice more common in women than in men and it is usually diagnosed in people aged between 20 and 40. While MS is not directly inherited, it seems there may be a genetic predisposition. There may also be a link between iron metabolism and MS. Iron is an essential component for healthy myelin sheaths and, in susceptible people, low levels of iron may lead to a loss of myelin and the progression of MS.

Cures and treatments

The progression of MS can be slowed down and the symptoms treated. Cape Town neurologist Dr Andrew Frost explains, ‘There is a wide variation in the course of the illness. Treatment options now include medications, which have been proven to alter the course of the illness and reduce the rate of relapses (MS attacks). Other treatments are aimed at managing symptoms such as fatigue, spasticity, pain, depression, and urinary incontinence. Many patients use additional alternative medical therapies. Most of these therapies are of unproven benefit, but many patients find them helpful.’

Take good care of yourself!

Dr Frost says, ‘It’s important that patients understand the benefit of a sensible approach to moderate exercise, a good diet, enough sleep and a healthy lifestyle.’

The MS Support Group stresses the importance of adapting to a healthier, well-balanced lifestyle adding that ‘A positive attitude is a definite plus!’

  • Deal with stress: stress can worsen the symptoms. Cut back on financial commitments and make practical changes to your lifestyle, such as relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, counselling or massage.
  • Keep fit: help your immune system by keeping fit, and maintaining good muscle tone and strength to help with your balance and coordination. Exercise is also a valuable tool in fighting depression.
  • Listen to your body: overdoing things can escalate your symptoms and may trigger a relapse. Pay attention to your body, stop and take a rest.
  • Recharge your batteries: people with MS may need to sleep late in the morning, take a nap during the day, and go to bed early.
  • Keep cool: you may be more sensitive to heat and humidity, so install air conditioning or use a fan.
  • Keep in touch: don’t isolate yourself, maintain relationships and friendships.
  • Eat well: include adequate fibre in your diet to prevent constipation. Your goal should be to eat five fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Drink lots of water: many people with MS experience bladder problems. A healthy fluid intake can help limit problems or infections. Don’t drink less to cut down on visits to the toilet because this can make problems worse – concentrated urine encourages infection, irritates the bladder and can also cause constipation.
  • Limit alcohol: you can still drink alcohol in moderation – a maximum of two units a day for women and three units for men. One unit is equal to a small glass of wine or a half pint of beer.
  • Enjoy yourself: take up new challenges to keep life fun and stimulating. Your quality of life and physical disability are not necessarily connected. You can achieve quality of life regardless of your physical abilities.

Stem-cell therapy

Stem-cell therapy involves the introduction of healthy, new stem cells to repair and replace damaged cells. Stem cells are the building blocks of all our tissues and organs. They can be grown outside of the body and transplanted to produce tissue regrowth in patients with severe degenerative diseases such as MS. Because the cells are taken from several sources, including unborn foetuses, the procedure is considered controversial and raises ethical questions.

Pharmacy fact

Multiple sclerosis literally means ‘many scars’. This refers to the hardened patches of connective tissue scattered through the brain and spinal cord that characterise the condition and which make it difficult for messages to move over the hardened areas. The symptoms of the illness depend on where these patches are.