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What is Multiple Sclerosis? Print E-mail
Written by Mike Cohen   
Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a lifelong autoimmune disorder that can cause severe disability. An autoimmune disorder is one in which the body produces antibodies that attack its own tissue. People with MS produce antibodies that attack the white matter in the brain and spinal cord.

What is going on in the body?

In multiple sclerosis, the myelin, or coating of nerve fibers, becomes inflamed in the brain and spinal cord. The inflammation damages the myelin, and signals cannot be passed along to the nerve.

About 70% of the individuals with MS have what is called the relapsing-remitting, or RR type, of MS. They have periodic relapses, or episodes where symptoms worsen. These relapses are followed by remissions, which involve partial or full relief from symptoms. The remaining 30% of people with MS have chronic, progressive disease. Although there are several subgroups, most individuals with chronic, progressive disease have a disease course that worsens steadily over time.

What are the causes and risks of the disease?
The cause of multiple sclerosis is not known. There are four major scientific theories about the cause of MS:
- Environmental. Worldwide, MS seems to be more common around the 40th parallel in the Northern and Southern hemispheres and is more prevalent in northern Europe. A person who is born in one of these areas but moves to another area before adolescence has a lower risk of developing MS.
- Genetic. Having a parent or sibling with MS significantly increases a person's risk of MS.
- Immunologic. It is generally accepted that multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder.
- Viral. It is possible that a viral infection can trigger MS.

Some neurologists believe that MS develops because a person is born with a genetic predisposition to react to an environmental agent. When that person comes into contact with the agent, the contact triggers an autoimmune response that causes MS.

What are the treatments for the disease?
Treatment has two main goals. The first is to stop or slow the immune system's attack on the myelin coating of the nerves. The second is to relieve the symptoms and help the person function as normally as possible.

The immune system is treated with medicines. Some of the most commonly used medicines for ongoing treatment of MS are:
- glatiramer acetate
- interferon beta 1-a
- interferon beta 1-b

Other treatments include:
- antidepressant medicines to relieve depression and reduce the risk for suicide
- high doses of corticosteroids such as methylprednisolone to relieve inflammation during relapses
- medicines for loss of bladder control, including oxybutynin or tolterodine
- medicines for muscle spasms, including baclofen, tizanidine, or botulism toxin
- medicines for nerve pain, such as carbamazepine, diphenylhydantoin, or gabapentin
- plasmapheresis, or removal of plasma, which is then treated and put back or retransfused into the body

A rehabilitation program is important to maintain as much function as possible and prevent complications of disability. Rehabilitation may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
Side effects vary depending on the medicine used. They may include drowsiness, stomach upset, and allergic reaction to the medicine. Corticosteroids may cause a variety of side effects, particularly when used long term. Water retention, swelling, and increased blood glucose levels can occur.

The only side effects from rehabilitation therapy are some temporary fatigue and muscle soreness. This is a normal part of a therapy program. It does not mean that the MS is getting worse.

What happens after treatment for the disease?
Monitoring and treatment of multiple sclerosis is lifelong. The progression of MS can be slowed quite a bit with the medicines. Treatment of symptoms, including medicines and therapy, can help reduce disability.

How is the disease monitored?
Blood tests, including a complete blood count, or CBC, and liver function tests, are used to monitor people who are taking certain medicines. An individual with MS will have regular visits to a primary healthcare provider, as well as various specialists. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the appropriate healthcare provider.


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