Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a degenerative disease that affects the cells of the brain and spinal cord. Neurons, the cells in the brain and spinal cord, carry electrochemical signals down a long projection called an axon. The axon is not “naked”; it is normally insulated by a fatty substance called myelin that is produced by supportive cells in the central nervous system called glial cells. This myelin forms a sheath around the axon that functions very much like the insulation on electrical wiring. The myelin sheath allows the neurons to send signals much faster than cell with a naked axon; without this sheath, nerve impulses are interrupted and inefficient. In multiple sclerosis, this myelin sheath is damaged and nerve cells become demyelinated and the cells themselves can become damaged, which can cause lots of problems in the body.
Multiple sclerosis tends to get worse over time and there is no cure for the disease, but the progression of the disease is widely variable. Multiple sclerosis is thought to be an autoimmune disease, where the body’s own antibodies attack the myelin sheath on neurons. Multiple sclerosis is most common among young women. It is unknown what causes the onset of this disease.
Nerve damage due to multiple sclerosis can cause a variety of symptoms all over the body. Nerve pain is a common effect of nerve damage. Muscle weakness or numbness is also common in areas where supplying nerves have been damaged. Vision problems are common in multiple sclerosis when the optic nerve or nerves supplying various small eye muscles are damaged. Tremor, lack of coordination and slurring of speech can also occur. People with multiple sclerosis may also experience fatigue and “brain fog.” Symptoms may occur in “attacks” and then get better for a while. Some of the symptoms may improve after an attack of multiple sclerosis is over, but some nerve damage can have permanent effects.
While multiple sclerosis cannot be cured, treatments can reduce the severity of and prevent attacks. Corticosteroids can be given during attacks to reduce inflammatory processes and nerve damage, making the symptoms more manageable. A procedure called plasmapheresis, where your blood is filtered outside of your body to get rid of harmful antibodies and your blood plasma is replaced in some cases. There are also many different prescription drugs that may slow the progression of multiple sclerosis, prevent attacks and reduce the severity of attacks and symptoms. Multiple sclerosis patients may also benefit from physical therapy to help with muscle function and strength, and medications such as muscle relaxants that can help with muscle spasms.