Multiple Sclerosis affects roughly 2.5 million people worldwide, making it the most prevalent disabling neurological condition of young adults worldwide. Informing yourself about some of the key facts regarding MS can be useful should you, or someone you care about, ever receive a diagnosis. We have therefore put together a Q&A of five of questions you might have, answering them in simple, easy-to-understand language.
1. What is Multiple Sclerosis?
To have an understanding of MS, there are a few medical terms it helps to be familiar with. They are:
- Autoimmune disorder – This is any condition caused by the immune system behaving abnormally. In the case of MS, it attacks healthy cells.
- Myelin – A fatty substance that forms a sheath around nerve fibre (axons) in the brain and central nervous system (CNS), helping speed up electrical impulses and communication.
- Demyelinating disease – A disease that results in the myelin sheath in the brain and spinal cord getting damaged.
MS is both an autoimmune disorder and a demyelinating disease, because the immune system attacks the myelin sheath. This results in a thinning or complete loss of myelin in places, preventing signals from travelling as they should, and disrupting the relationship between mind and body. This can affect eyesight, speech, muscle strength, cognitive abilities, and an array of other functions.
A sudden worsening of new or existing symptoms is called a relapse, although they are also known as flare-ups, attacks, episodes, blips, and exacerbations. The way in which an individual is affected depends upon which type of MS they have.
2. What are the different types of MS?
There are four types of MS, which are defined by the way in which the disease progresses. They are:
- Relapsing-Remitting MS (RRMS): the most common type of MS, accounting for over 80% of patients. Symptoms can remain dormant for years, even if the disease is fundamentally active. Relapses are unpredictable; new and existing symptoms can occur suddenly, lasting a few days or weeks, before regressing.
- Secondary-Progressive MS (SPMS): often considered the second stage of the disease, 40% of those with RRMS progress to SPMS within 10 years. Relapses occur as in RRMS, but do not regress to the same extent, and symptoms gradually worsen between them.
- Primary-Progressive MS (PPMS): affecting approximately 10% of MS patients, PPMS is relatively rare. Those with it do not have relapses and regressions like the aforementioned types. Rather, symptoms gradually worsen from the outset, although temporary improvement can occur.
- Progressive-Relapsing MS (PRMS): affecting roughly 5% of patients, PRMS is the least common type of MS, and characterised by a steady worsening of the disease, along with relapses, but no remissions.
Should a friend or family member be diagnosed, having knowledge about the specific condition can massively help in understanding what they are facing and supporting them. In the long-run, it will help you understand why their symptoms progress in the manner they do.
3. What affect does MS have?
Because it is a disease of the central nervous system, MS can affect almost any part of the body. Each case is unique, and people will have symptoms specific to them. Common symptoms include:
- Muscle weakness and spasms
- Problems with vision
- Diminished cognitive abilities
- Bladder problems
- Speech impairment
- Depression and anxiety
Someone with MS will likely only have a few of these symptoms, and the way in which they develop depends on the form of MS they have. MS is highly unpredictable, so be aware that symptoms and their severity are liable to change on a day-by-day and week-by-week basis. Armouring yourself with knowledge is the best way of understanding the needs of someone with MS, and how you can best offer your support.
4. Is MS curable?
MS is not currently curable. Being diagnosed with a condition that has no cure is difficult news for anyone to receive, so make sure you don’t make the faux pas of asking someone with MS if there is one. It could make for an uncomfortable situation.
The good news is that while not curable, treatment is available that limits the effects and frequency of relapses, and helps manage the symptoms of MS. A person’s specific treatment plan will be decided depending on their personal needs. By understanding this, you can have an informed discussion about their treatment, and why they have decided on their specific treatment plan. Knowing the practical benefits and limitations of such treatments will also help you understand their progress over time.
Research into MS treatments is ongoing, and staying up-to-date with the latest developments shows you are taking an active interest in your loved one’s condition.
5. How can I help someone with MS?
To recycle a couple of old clichés: a little understanding goes a long way, and knowledge is power. Having an understanding and at least a basic knowledge of MS gives you the power to talk to someone with it, and have a greater awareness of what they are going through. Understanding the individuality of their condition will allow you to consider the best way in which you can help. Often the best support is simply being there to listen and talk to your friend or family member, and the better prepared you are to do so, the better the support you can offer.
Asking for help can be difficult for many people, and they may feel like doing so costs independence. It’s not unusual for a person to feel guilty asking for help. Considering ways in which you can help, and making it clear your support is available without forcing it upon them, can go a long way in overcoming these obstacles.
As with many chronic conditions, depression and anxiety can often be waiting in the wings, caused by loneliness and helplessness. By taking an active role in helping a person manage their MS, perhaps by joining them for doctor’s appointments or MS meeting, you can do your part in fighting the mental battle that invariably comes with an MS diagnosis.
There are many variables and quirks with MS, and one rule does not fit all. However, by preparing yourself mentally, you can have open and honest discussions with any friend or family member diagnosed with MS, and play your role in helping them come to terms with their condition, and manage their life moving forward.