Multiple sclerosis: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Bajaj Finserv Health Team
November 20, 2020

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disabling neurological disease that affects the central nervous system. While in the UK and USA, MS affects up to 150 people in 100,000, in India its prevalence is up to 10 in 100,000. However, this number may be underrepresented as MS can be difficult to diagnose. It can present itself through umpteen number of symptoms, it is chronic, in that it can last for years or for your entire life, and cannot be cured. If you’re wondering what is MS, it would help to know that it is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system does damage to the protective sheath covering nerve fibres.

MS is rarely fatal but may reduce life expectancy by months or years. However, treatment can be helpful and can even slow down the progression of MS. Hence, it is important to know more about MS, especially its early signs.

Here’s a rundown of multiple sclerosis, its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis arises when the immune system acts abnormally and attacks the central nervous system, which comprises the brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord. In the case of MS, the immune system causes damage to:

  • The sheath that protects the nerve fibres (myelin)
  • The nerve fibres
  • The cells that make myelin

The damaged areas develop scarring and sclerosis, which is etymologically linked to the word ‘hard’, here, refers to scarring. So, while MS stands for multiple sclerosis, multiple sclerosis itself refers to ‘multiple areas of scarring’, as per the definition given by the National MS Society. Depending on the extent of damage done, MS symptoms in persons vary by type and intensity.

What causes multiple sclerosis?

The exact cause of MS is unknown. So, there are no known ways of preventing it or getting it. However, scientists believe the cause to be a combination of:

  • Genetics
  • Environmental factors

While the cause of the MS disease is not known, medical experts have enumerated several risk factors such as:

  • Being between age 20 and 40 for the onset of MS
  • Being female (as it affects more women than men)
  • Having a Vitamin D deficiency
  • Living further away from the equator
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Previous Epstein-Barr virus infection

Research on risk factors such as these help scientists come closer to pinpointing the cause of MS, while also debunking unproven theories.

Symptoms of multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis causes a wide range of symptoms, even as it affects the central nervous system, which controls a majority of the body’s functions.

Common multiple sclerosis symptoms are:

  • Numbness or weakness in one or more limbs
  • Electric shock sensation when moving neck (Lhermitte’s sign)
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision or double vision
  • Eye pain
  • Loss of vision in one eye (Optic neuritis)
  • Chronic pain
  • Muscle spasms
  • Dizziness
  • Tremors
  • Unsteady gait
  • Bladder and bowel problems
  • Tingling sensation
  • Stiffness
  • Vertigo
  • Learning difficulty
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Anxiety
  • Sexual problems
  • Slurred speech
  • Trouble chewing

As you can see, the symptoms caused by MS range across the board and may easily be mistaken for those of another disease. So, if you have any of these symptoms and aren’t suffering from another disease, you can talk to your doctor to assess the risk of you having MS. Moreover, many of these symptoms are also early signs of multiple sclerosis, meaning that if you spot them quickly, your treatment efforts should bear more fruit.

How is multiple sclerosis diagnosed?

Multiple sclerosis is not easy to diagnose. Moreover, there is no test, at present, that can positively assert that you have MS. Most often, diagnosis for multiple sclerosis takes the path of ruling out other conditions. Some techniques doctors may use to arrive at a diagnosis are:

  • Neurological exam: To assess whether the nervous system is impaired in a way that points to MS
  • Blood tests: To rule out diseases that have MS-like symptoms
  • MRI scan: To spot scarring of the myelin around the nerves
  • Spinal tap (Lumbar puncture): To extract cerebrospinal fluid for analysis of nervous system issues
  • Evoked Potential Test: To assess how your nervous system responds to stimuli

Sometimes the diagnosis of MS needs time because of the nonspecific nature of the symptoms. Then, your doctor may be able to identify the particular course of MS, namely:

  • Clinically isolated syndrome (CIS)
  • Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS)
  • Primary progressive MS (PPMS)
  • Secondary progressive MS (SPMS)

Treatment of multiple sclerosis

There is no cure for multiple sclerosis, but treatment can help:

  • Address symptoms
  • Aid recovery
  • Treat relapses
  • Slow down the progress of MS

Based on your symptoms, the doctor may suggest anything from exercise and more sleep, to corticosteroids, antidepressants, plasma exchange and disease-modifying therapy. Patients with the relapsing type of MS be given treatment with a disease-modifying drug. Such a drug alters the way the immune system operates to target MS. These drugs may be injectable, oral, or infused medications.

However, to help you cope with the symptoms and their effects, do not be surprised if doctors suggest physical therapy, occupational therapy, or some other form of rehabilitation. Since the symptoms of MS can worsen over time, it is best to get medical aid early. MS does not prove to be debilitating for the majority of patients. So, paralysis is not a worry here. But, many will need an aid to walk and move about over the course of time.

The prognosis on MS is that it can have potentially severe consequences, but its course is hard to predict. Nevertheless, early treatment is understood to be important to avoiding long-term disability. However, since diagnosing MS is a tricky task, you may need to keep a check on the symptoms you experience and schedule regular consultations with your doctor.

An easy way to have quick access to relevant doctors is to use the Bajaj Finserv Health app. It lets you search for the best doctors, book appointments at their clinics online, consult via video, and store and share personal health records too. This way you can assess the risk of MS in an ongoing manner. If you are diagnosed with MS, the app will help you keep track of any medication you may need to take and help you schedule future reviews with doctors. To make the most of this online healthcare tool, download it from Google Play or the Apple App Store today.