For those newly diagnosed with MS or who are trying to support a friend or family member with the disease, learning about the causes and symptoms of MS is a good place to start. With over 2.3 million people affected worldwide by MS, and the various ways in which the disease damages the central nervous system, the symptoms of MS can take many different shapes and forms. Here we will cover the basics of MS, its causes and symptoms.
What is MS
MS is a chronic disease in which the body’s immune system turns inward and attacks the Central Nervous System (CNS). The CNS is made up of the brain and spinal cord, which are comprised of nerves that bring signals for action from the brain to the rest of the body. These nerve signals are essential to movement, sight and touch. A big part of how well these signals are communicated is the myelin that surrounds the nerve. Myelin is a fatty material that wraps around the nerve to insulate it and make sure the impulses down the nerves are efficient, smooth and coordinated. Myelin and the cells that produce myelin - called oligodendrocytes - break down in those with MS. It becomes harder to transmit signals down nerves as a result. The places where myelin is lost are called plaques, lesions, or scars (multiple sclerosis means ‘multiple areas of scarring’).
Causes of MS
While the exact causes of MS are still unknown, there are several factors that increase the likelihood of developing the disease: age, gender, geography, ethnic background and genetics. Most people are diagnosed between age 20 and 50, with about two to three times as many women diagnosed with MS as men. The disease is more common in people who live further from the equator, and people who move in early childhood to a new location even take on the likelihood of developing MS of that new location. Recent theories have suggested that low exposure to sun - and the low levels of Vitamin D in the blood that result - are at play in higher likelihood of developing MS. But keep in mind there are different ethnic groups with different rates of MS that live the same distance away from the equator. This suggests that there are genetic factors that predispose people to developing MS. The identical twin of someone with MS, for example, has a 25% chance of also having MS. So while genetics are important, we can’t overlook other factors like the environment, smoking and obesity.
Symptoms of MS
The CNS controls all the body’s functions, so damage to the CNS and myelin can cause a wide range of symptoms. Below are some of the more common symptoms of MS. Keep in mind that everyone experiences MS and its symptoms in different ways.
Fatigue - 80% of people with MS experience fatigue
Numbness and Tingling - Numbness in the face, body, arms or legs is often the first symptom
Vision Problems - A common first symptom, vision can be blurred with poor color contrast and pain on eye movement
Weakness - Without signals to fire muscles, they grow deconditioned and weaker
Spasticity - Feelings of tightness and involuntary muscle spasms
Vertigo - Some people with MS feel off balance and that the room is spinning
Walking Difficulties - Taking other symptoms like fatigue, weakness, spasticity and vertigo together, it’s no surprise that many diagnosed with MS have issues like foot drop that cause difficulty walking
Cog Fog - More than 50% of people with MS see changes in cognitive ability, such as processing incoming information, learning new information and focusing attention
And more - Click here for a more complete list including less common MS symptoms like speech problems, breathing problems, hearing loss, headaches, etc.
Some of these symptoms can be exacerbated by external factors like heat, so be aware and in touch with how you or your loved ones are feeling. For physical symptoms like vertigo, weakness, spasticity and walking difficulties, physical therapy can be an effective treatment.
While we cannot be there in person for many of you, Rekinetics has developed a 1-month program that can be delivered virtually and make an immediate impact in your quality of life. If you would like to participate please fill out a form on the Contact Us page to schedule a video call and see if Rekinetics might be able to help you.