Multiple Sclerosis: the disease with a thousand faces

On World Multiple Sclerosis Day, we celebrate global solidarity and the hope that scientific advances can bring.

Written by Stannah

World Multiple Sclerosis Day is an initiative of the MS International Federation and its support networks for raising awareness about MS and the importance of research in the search for a cure.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is also known as “the disease with a thousand faces”. And why a thousand faces? Because each person diagnosed with this chronic disease has unique symptoms. We still don’t know much about MS, so the World MS organisation decided to mark May 30th as World MS Day.

What is Multiple sclerosis (MS)?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an incurable chronic disease in which the immune system destroys tissue in the brain and spinal cord.

According to the World MS organization: “Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is one of the most common neurological disorders and causes of disability in young adults. It is a disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and the body.”

MS is caused by the insulating covers of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord being damaged.  Because of this damage, the communication between different parts of the nervous system is disrupted. The person affected can therefore start to experience a range of symptoms, which can be physical, but also mental and psychiatric.

The US National Multiple Sclerosis society has an informative video that gives a clear explanation of this mysterious neurological disease:

As is the case with another unfathomable neurological disease; Parkinson’s, MS can manifest itself a lot of different ways, with different symptoms and different ways of developing. Someone who has been diagnosed can have years of non-painful symptoms, some never even have to use a wheelchair and for others it can be very different.

Four distinct types, or rather disease courses, have been determined:

Clinically isolated syndrome (CIS)

CIS is indicative of multiple sclerosis but it does not automatically mean that the person in question has MS. They could, however, have a higher risk of developing it. CIS is an episode of neurologic symptoms caused by inflammation and damaged myelin (the coat that protects your nerves) in the central nervous system and must last for at least 24 hours.

If the brain of the person affected shows lesions on an MRI scan which are similar to those of MS, it’s likely that the person will go on to develop relapsing MS. Early treatment by means of a disease-modifying therapy has been shown to delay the start of MS, which is a very positive development.

Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS)

85% of people with MS receive this as their first diagnosis. RRMS is defined by clearly marked attacks (or relapses) of new or progressive neurological symptoms. These relapses are then followed by remissions (of partial or complete recovery) during which all symptoms may disappear.

However, they can also continue or even become permanent. Over time, RRMS can be characterised as active, non-active, worsening or not worsening, depending on the number of relapses or new MRI activity.

Primary progressive MS (PPMS)

This disease course is characterised by an accumulation of disabilities, which means that neurological functions will worsen without early remissions. As is the case with RRMS, PPMS can also be characterised as active, non-active, with progression or without progression, but there can be brief periods where the disease is stable. About 15% of people with MS are diagnosed with PPMS.

Secondary progressive MS (SPMS)

This course is characterised by an initial relapsing-remitting stage – most people who are diagnosed with RRMS will eventually have it develop into SPMS.

With SPMS, over time, there is a progressive worsening of neurological functions. SPMS can also be characterised as active, non-active, with progression or without progression. As is the case with all the different types of MS, each person’s experience will be different.

In order to explain the idea that MS has a lot of different faces, the following video was created for World MS day back in 2009. Take a look and maybe you’ll get a better understanding of what so many people are facing:

Research into MS

As we’ve seen, this year’s theme is research. It goes without saying that there’s still a lot of necessary research to be done, as at this moment there is no cure nor is the cause of MS known. The research done over the last few decades has given us some insight, along with several therapies that have been helpful to MS patients. These therapies have been developed to prevent new attacks or relapses and to prevent disability.

In 1868 Multiple Sclerosis is first defined as a medical condition

What do we know about MS?

Even though we do not know what the cause of MS is, the research done has enabled scientists to define several different factors that may influence the development of this disease. What are these factors?

Environmental factors

  • One of the most peculiar factors is geographical; MS is known to affect a lot more people who live farther away from the equator. This means that people in northern European countries are more prone to MS then people living in Argentina, for example.
  • Research suggests that a lack of vitamin D plays an important role in the development of MS, along with the amount of sunlight one has year-round.
  • There is an increase in evidence that shows that smoking also plays a part in the development of MS, and that it could be an independent risk factor.

Immunologic factors

  • We know that the myelin coating around the nerve fibres in the central nervous system are damaged by MS. Thanks to all the research that has already been done, researchers are now able to identify the immune cells that mount the attack. This research will bring us closer to the cause of MS which will take us one step closer to finding a cure.

Infectious factors

  • Viruses that we have during childhood, for example measles and the mumps, but also other infections like chlamydia and herpes are well-recognised cases of demyelination and inflammation. Therefore, there is a possibility that a virus or other infectious agents can trigger MS. Research is currently being conducted into several viruses to learn more about this factor.

Genetic factors

  • MS isn’t hereditary; however, some genetic variations can increase the risk of being diagnosed with MS. When you have a first degree relative with MS your risk of developing MS is higher. Luckily, new techniques for identifying genes that are available today could answer the question about the role of genes in MS.

Mobility and MS  

The biggest impairments that people with MS suffer from is a considerable decrease in their mobility. Fatigue is a symptom that a lot of MS patients suffer from, and is one of the most difficult symptoms to manage.

Stannah has been able to help a lot of people who suffer from the effects of MS on their bodies, minds and overall life by constantly working to improve our stairlifts, and by investing in new techniques to make life easier. As one might imagine, not being able to move freely in your own home, plus dealing with all the other impairments MS can bring can be very difficult to accept and can contribute to depression.

We are hopeful that initiatives such as World MS day will create more awareness and more research opportunities so that either a cure can be found or we can stop the disease from developing in the first place.

Sources used:

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