Multiple sclerosis

MS is a condition of the central nervous system (CNS) that adversely affects the optic nerve, the brain and the spinal cord. The damage to myelin affects the communication between your brain and the rest of the body. The nerves may ultimately degenerate – this process is currently irreversible.

According to Multiple Sclerosis South Africa, it’s the most common disabling neurological disease among young adults and is most often diagnosed in people between the ages of 20 and 40, with women almost twice as likely to develop it as men.

Multiple sclerosis causes are not clear, but there are certain factors that may increase the chances of it developing – these range from genetics to smoking and certain viral infections.

What are its symptoms?

Multiple sclerosis signs and symptoms may come and go in the form of relapses and remissions, and for some they may get steadily worse over time.

Common symptoms include:

  • Muscle spasm or weakness
  • Difficulty walking
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Numbness or tingling in the face, arms and legs
  • Poor bladder or bowel control
  • Difficulty focusing or remembering
  • Pain – that is, non-specific nerve/neuralgic pain.

Less common symptoms include:

  • Speech problems
  • Tremors
  • Breathing problems
  • Swallowing problems
  • Seizures
  • Itching
  • Hearing loss.

How is it diagnosed?

A multiple sclerosis diagnosis may be a challenge as symptoms are similar to those of other nerve disorders. Your doctor will more than likely refer you to a neurologist, who treats conditions related to the brain and nervous system.

Your medical history will be taken, and you will be examined for signs of damage to the nerves, brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. While there is no single test that can determine whether you have MS, there are a number of ones that assist in diagnosis. These include:

  • Blood tests – while there is no specific multiple sclerosis blood test, other tests could be done to rule out diseases with similar symptoms, such as Lyme disease.
  • MRI scan – this non-invasive procedure takes clear images of the structures in the body, including the brain and spinal cord.
  • Analysis of cerebrospinal fluid, the liquid in the brain and spinal cord. Specific proteins are present in those with MS.
  • Evoked potential test – these measure the brain’s electrical activity in response to specific sensory nerve pathways. It’s able to detect the slowing down of activity caused by damage to myelin.

What are your treatment options?

While there is currently no cure, multiple sclerosis treatment options can help manage symptoms, ease stress, assist body functioning and slow down the progression of the disease.

Treatment includes:

  • Certain drugs may be prescribed that may slow down the progression of MS or help nerve damage, for example, the disease-modifying oral multiple sclerosis drug teriflunomide (Aubagio), approved in 2012, has seen significant results in clinical trials.
  • Steroids could decrease or lessen the severity of multiple sclerosis attacks.
  • Muscle relaxants, tranquilizers or botox could ease spasms.
  • Physical therapy is advised, as this helps to maintain strength and balance, and better manage fatigue and pain.
  • Occupational therapy can assist in finding different ways to perform everyday tasks that may start becoming challenging. A cane or walker may be suggested.
  • Counselling or joining a support group may help with the emotional side of the diagnosis.
  • Try to exercise if possible.

Can it be prevented?

There is no way to prevent multiple sclerosis. For people who have been diagnosed, treatments are available that slow down its progression, delay disability and reduce the frequency of relapses.

For more info
Multiple Sclerosis South Africa

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in June 2015