If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), you may be unsure of where to turn. MS is a complex autoimmune condition, and no two people experience multiple sclerosis symptoms in exactly the same way.
Here, we'll explore exactly what a multiple sclerosis diagnosis means, the different types of MS and how they can show up in the brain and the body, and how to take steps to take control of your health following a tough diagnosis.
What is multiple sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis affects several parts of the body, including the optic nerves, brain, and spinal cord. These components make up the body's central nervous system, which is responsible for receiving, processing, and responding to information perceived by the senses.
While researchers don't fully understand what causes MS, it's clear that the condition causes the body's immune system to attack the central nervous system. The nerve fibers that run through the body are coated in a protective layer called myelin. When a person develops MS, the myelin is damaged, which interferes with the messaging between the brain and other parts of the nervous system.
There are many different symptoms of MS, including:
- Mood changes
- Memory issues
Some people find that they only experience multiple sclerosis symptoms during flare-ups, while others experience symptoms on a more consistent basis. Flare-ups can be caused by an infection in the body, not getting enough sleep, and inflammation in the body that may or may not be related to eating certain foods.
Understanding how your body is responding to MS is a key first step in managing your condition. In addition to knowing what causes your symptoms to worsen, it's also important to understand your classification of multiple sclerosis.
Types of MS
The type of MS you have may change over time. As you work with your healthcare provider to understand and manage your symptoms, they'll keep you updated on the current classification of your condition.
Here, we'll explore the three main types of multiple sclerosis--relapsing-remitting, primary-progressive, and secondary progressive, as well as clinically isolated syndrome.
Relapsing remitting MS (RRMS)
The most common type of multiple sclerosis, RRMS is characterized by periods of fewer or no symptoms, followed by periods of relapse. About 85% of people with MS are diagnosed with RRMS.
During the recovery period between each relapse, RRMS does not get worse. During each relapse, however, symptoms tend to increase in severity.
Relapses of MS are defined as the appearance of new symptoms or the resurgence of old symptoms. Keeping a journal of your symptoms can help you and your doctor to understand lifestyle factors or foods that may push your body to relapse. Typically, relapse symptoms begin and worsen within a matter of hours or days, and may remain active for just a few days or for several months.
While some relapses require inpatient treatment, often, symptoms can be managed at home. Some people find that symptoms come and go during an RRMS relapse. The return to the recovery period is often gradual, with relapse symptoms fading over time.
Primary progressive MS (PPMS)
Most commonly diagnosed in people aged 40-49, primary-progressive MS becomes worse over time. PPMS only accounts for about 15% of all MS cases. Many people don't notice that they're showing symptoms of MS at the start of the disease, as early indicators of PPMS are typically mild.
Unlike other types of MS, people with PPMS don't usually experience relapses. Their symptoms usually stay consistent for long periods of time, with a gradual increase as the disease begins to progress.
People are diagnosed with PPMS when their MS symptoms are apparent and get worse over the course of a year (rather than relapsing MS, in which symptoms get better and worse over time). In order to diagnose PPMS, your doctor will take an MRI of your brain and/or your spinal cord, looking for at least two lesions that formed at different times. You'll also have a lumbar puncture procedure. Your treatment team will analyze your spinal fluid, looking for antibodies that indicate the presence of MS.
There are many ways to manage the symptoms of PPMS, including lifestyle changes and medications. You may find that a combination of medication and lifestyle changes works to slow the progression of your symptoms.
Secondary-progressive MS (SPMS)
Sometimes, MS progresses into different stages as the severity and frequency of symptoms begins to increase. Relapse remitting MS (RRMS) can progress into SPMS for many people. During this stage of the disease, symptoms are continual, without a recovery period. In order to diagnose a progression to this stage of MS, healthcare professionals look for a six-month period during which symptoms have continually become worse.
While there's no cure for MS, some drug therapies can be helpful for people with SPMS, including beta interferons and siponimod. Your doctor will also work with you to develop lifestyle strategies to help you manage your symptoms.
Clinically isolated syndrome (CIS)
If your brain shows signs of damage that's similar to MS, and you've had symptoms in line with MS, it's possible that you may be diagnosed with clinically isolated syndrome, or CIS. Many people who are diagnosed with CIS are never diagnosed with MS.
Autoimmune diseases and your health
Autoimmune diseases are complicated, and it can be hard to pinpoint the link between worsening symptoms and lifestyle factors. With the permission of our app users, Evidation is putting health data to work in the fight against autoimmune conditions. Click here to learn more about the research we’re doing to further the medical community’s understanding of autoimmune diseases.
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