Approximately 100,000 people in the UK have Multiple Sclerosis (MS) - a neurological disease which affects your brain and spinal cord. Most people are diagnosed with the condition in their thirties, forties and fifties, however the signs and symptoms can often start years earlier.
Despite such a large number of people living with MS, there is still much confusion surrounding the condition – including how it is caused, the signs and symptoms to look out for, and how it can be managed.
With MS Awareness Week taking place across the UK from 23rd – 29th April, here two leading consultants at HCA Healthcare UK, Dr Adrian Bloor, Consultant Haematologist from The Christie Private Care, and Dr Adrian Pace, Consultant Neurologist at The Wilmslow Hospital, have revealed ten key things that everyone should know about the condition.
MS AFFECTS THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
Dr Adrian Pace says: “MS is a disabling disease of the central nervous system. It causes inflammation, destruction, and scarring of the sheath that covers nerve fibres (called myelin) in the brain and spinal cord. As a result of this damage, electrical signals sent out from the brain are slowed or blocked from reaching the eyes, muscles, and other parts of the body.”
MS IS A CHRONIC CONDITION
Dr Adrian Pace says: “MS is classified as a chronic condition, which means that it is long-lasting and cannot be completely cured. In most patients, the condition progresses gradually with alternating periods of remission, good health, and disabling flare-ups.
Although MS is a life-long condition, many of its symptoms can be managed through medications and lifestyle adjustments – and patients lead active lives for many years after their diagnosis.”
THE CAUSE OF MS IS UNKNOWN
Dr Adrian Pace says: “A malfunction of the body's immune system appears to be the primary cause of MS, but exactly why that malfunction occurs is still unknown. Researchers are still working to understand autoimmune diseases such as MS, in which the immune system, which normally protects the body from infection and other disease, starts attacking the body.
Although the exact cause is not known, some researchers believe that MS may in part be an inherited disease. While MS is not classified as a hereditary condition, having a first-degree relative (such as a parent or sibling) with MS may significantly increase an individual's risk of developing the disease too.”
MS SYMPTOMS ARE DIFFERENT FOR EVERYONE
Dr Adrian Pace says: “The central nervous system links everything your body does, so MS can cause many different types of symptoms. These can range from mild to severe, depending on patient and what part of the brain, spinal cord, or optic nerves have been affected. Symptoms may last for a few days or be permanent. They may also improve and then come back months to years after they have initially occurred.
The list of symptoms associated with MS is very long. It includes numbness and tingling, vision problems, balance and mobility issues, fatigue, muscle stiffness and spasms, breathing problems, bladder problems, itching, slurred speech, sexual dysfunction and, in extreme cases, seizures or paralysis of limbs.
There are no ‘typical’ symptoms of MS, because each person experiences the disease differently. Some people will experience several of the symptoms associated with the condition, whereas others may only experience a few. I would always recommend making an appointment with your local GP or a Haematologist about a symptom that worries you.”
MS SYMPTOMS CAN COME AND GO
Dr Adrian Pace Says: Many patients who seek treatment for MS will experience ‘relapses’ and ‘remissions’. A relapse, also called an exacerbation, is when you experience a flare-up of symptoms. Remission is a period in which you have no symptoms of the disease. This can last for weeks, months, or even years – however, unfortunately it does not mean you no longer have MS.”
THERE ARE SEVERAL TYPES OF MS
There are 4 types of disease identified in MS. These are:
- Relapsing-remitting MS—Symptoms for relapsing-remitting MS will suddenly reappear every few months or years, and then go back into remission.
- Primary progressive MS—Symptoms for primary progressive MS gradually worsen after they first appear, and relapses and remissions usually do not occur.
- Secondary progressive MS—In secondary progressive MS, after years of relapses and remissions, symptoms will suddenly begin to progressively worsen.
- Progressive relapsing MS—Symptoms in progressive relapsing MS will gradually worsen after they first appear, but one or more relapses may occur.”
MS IS DIFFICULT TO DIAGNOSE
Dr Adrian Pace says: It can be difficult to diagnose MS because there is such a vast number of symptoms, many of which are similar to those of other conditions. There is also no definitive test that can be carried out identify the condition however, the findings of certain tests can contribute to a diagnosis.
When you first visit your doctor, they will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. A physical examination will also be carried out. If the expert think that you may be at risk of the condition, they will carry out further tests such as an MRI scan to check for damage to the nerve cells in the brain or spinal cord, or a lumbar puncture, which removes a small amount of fluid from around the spinal cord to check for abnormal changes associated with MS.”
LIFESTYLE FACTORS CAN HELP TO MANAGE MS
Dr Adrian Pace says: “Everyone needs look after their general health, but this is particularly important for people who have been diagnosed with MS.
When it comes to lifestyle, I always advise my MS patients to eat healthily, exercise sensibly, try not to drink too much alcohol and give up smoking. Maintaining overall health will keep patients physically and mentally fit, which will allow them to better manage their symptoms so that they can continue with their everyday lifestyle, such as work or studying, as well as they things they enjoy.”
TREATMENT OF MS IS ADVANCING
Dr Adrian Pace says: “Because there is currently no cure for MS, the primary goal of MS treatment is to relieve patients of any symptoms, prevent relapses, and slow disease progression. At The Christie Private Care, we currently support MS patients with the treatment and management of MS by introducing various lifestyle changes, medications, and other treatments, such as physical therapy or mental health services (counselling).
Dr Adrian Bloor says: “Results of a randomised trial comparing autologous stem cell transplantation (ASCT) with disease modifying drug treatment for patients with relapsing remitting MS have recently been reported. ASCT was well tolerated and in the first 3 years of follow up only 6% of the transplanted patients relapsed compared to 60% of the patients treated with drug therapy. These really exciting results demonstrate that ASCT has the potential to be a game-changing treatment for MS patients by ‘rebooting’ the patient’s immune system and significantly reducing the rate of disease progression.”
MS RESEARCH IS ALWAYS PROGRESSING
Dr Adrian Pace says: “We've made huge strides in the management and care for MS patients in recent years, and are continuing to do so as time goes on.
Researchers, scientists and doctors are working hard to find new and innovative ways to stop the immune system from attacking myelin, many of which are showing promise in clinical trials. Researchers are also developing drugs that could reverse damage and protects the body’s nervous system.
This continual progress suggests that we are close to finding new MS treatments – and perhaps one day even a cure!”