Multiple Sclerosis - What Is It Exactly?
If you've watched the TV series "The West Wing", you are no doubt familiar with the story of President Bartlett keeping from the public that he had multiple sclerosis while he was running for office. The show touched on the basics of the disease and for the most part tried to give us some idea of what it was and what it wasn't. In this article we're going to present the facts on multiple sclerosis, not through the eyes of a TV show but through the eyes of the medical profession.
Without getting too technical, which is hard to do when talking about a disease of this nature, multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord. More specifically, it is a disease of the nerve fibers that carry information and signals from the central nervous system to the rest of the body.
What happens is that plaque builds up in the area around these nerve fibers which damages the nerve insulating material called myelin. How badly damaged these nerve fibers become, determines the severity of the symptoms associated with the disease.
No two people are affected by multiple sclerosis in the same way. The disease itself is as unique to each person as their DNA. However there are certain symptoms that develop during the course of the disease that are common throughout, though they may occur at different times, in the progression of the disease itself. For example, some people may be unable to walk relatively early on while others lose this ability much later or possibly not at all. The reason the symptoms and timing vary so much is because each nerve center in the body controls a different part of the body. So the damage of that particular nerve center that will determine what function is affected and to what severity.
Some of the more common symptoms of multiple sclerosis are numbness, tingling, pins and needles, muscle weakness, muscle spasms, spasticity, cramps, pain, blindness, blurred or double vision, incontinence, urinary urgency or hesitancy, constipation, slurred speech, loss of sexual function, loss of balance, nausea, disabling fatigue, depression, short term memory problems, other forms of cognitive dysfunction, inability to swallow, inability to control breathing and the list literally goes on and on. Basically any function of the body that requires nerve center impulse transmission is at risk of attack. Yes, it is an insidious and horrible disease.
Depending on your point of view of life and death, some say the worst part of this disease is that it is not fatal and progresses very slowly. In the early stages most people have no symptoms at all and may not even know they have it. As the disease progresses symptoms begin to show and worsen. People at some point need the assistance of a cane or some other device to assist with walking. As the disease progresses, and again this varies from person to person, symptoms can become so severe that the person is completely immobile. People with multiple sclerosis who eventually die do not do so from the disease itself but from an indirect result of the disease, which can be just about anything from a stroke to a heart attack to organs just simply not working any longer.
In the next article we'll go over the different types of multiple sclerosis and how the disease is treated.