Here's what you need to know about MS

Actor Christina Applegate has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).

The Emmy award-winning actress, who has starred in Dead to Me and Anchorman, shared the news with fans on Twitter.

“Hi friends. A few months ago, I was diagnosed with MS,” she wrote. “It’s been a strange journey. But I have been so supported by people that I know who also have this condition.”

MS is a common disease. There are over 25,600 people living with it in Australia, on average, more than 10 Australians are diagnosed with the condition every week.

MS is a lifelong condition where the immune system attacks the nervous system, causing a wide range of symptoms.

Despite the wealth of information available about MS, it’s often misunderstood, which can be frustrating for someone who has been diagnosed.

Here are a few things to know about the condition and how it can affect daily life.

What exactly is MS?
“Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a disease where the immune system attacks the nervous system,” says consultant neurologist Dr Ben Turner.

‘Sclerosis’ means scarring or hardening of tiny patches of tissue, and ‘multiple’ is added because this can happen in more than one place.

“The condition affects the brain and spinal cord and so can have a wide range of symptoms, which vary from person to person,” Dr Turner adds. It affects women about twice as often as men, and typically starts in the second or third decade of life but can potentially be seen at any age.

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“While it is a lifelong condition that sometimes leads to serious disability, it can occasionally be mild, in which case symptoms may be treated successfully,” Dr Turner says. “In the past decade, there’s been a development of highly effective therapies which can contain the condition, which has transformed the outcome for many individuals with MS.”

There are many different symptoms
MS affects the brain and spinal cord and so can cause a wide range of symptoms that vary from person to person. In some cases, it can cause serious disability, although in others it can occasionally be mild.

The main symptoms include fatigue, limb weakness, difficulty walking, pain, vision problems, numbness and tingling in the body, problems with balance and issues with controlling the bladder.

Symptoms may come and go, or they can gradually get worse over time, depending on the type of MS you have.

It’s an autoimmune disease
The cells in our nervous system are covered in a protective fatty protein layer called the myelin sheath.

In MS, the immune system (which normally protects us from bugs and viruses) mistakenly attacks the nerve cells, damaging the protective sheath and triggering a process called demyelination.

Because of this process, MS disrupts the ‘messages’ travelling along nerve fibres to the brain, causing them to slow down, become distorted, or not get through at all.

Although it’s believed genetic and environmental factors may both play a role, the exact cause of MS is still a bit of a mystery. And there is no single test to diagnose the condition.

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However, MS is thought to cause the immune system to attack myelin, the protein covering the central nervous system, which makes it harder for messages to get received, potentially causing problems with how a person walks, moves, eats and processes things.

People are usually diagnosed young
MS is most commonly diagnosed in people in their 20s and 30s, and it’s the most common cause of disability in younger adults.

That said, it can develop at any age.

“Many of the symptoms are present in other conditions too,” says Dr Turner, “which means it can be difficult to diagnose.”

Methods of diagnosis include blood tests (which can help rule out other conditions); MRI scans (which can reveal typical lesions on the spinal cord or brain); evoked potential tests (measuring electrical activity in the nervous system) and lumbar puncture (to reveal abnormal immune activity).

Read: Hardest diseases to diagnose

“There are also different types of MS, such as relapsing and remitting (RRMS) and primary progressive MS (PPMS), which will determine the path of treatment,” Dr Turner adds. “For both diagnosis, prognosis and treatment, it is important to see a neurologist with a specialist interest in MS.”

Treatment has radically improved the outlook for people with MS
Although there is no cure for MS, advancements in treatment have meant that while living with the symptoms can be difficult, it is much more manageable in this day and age, and individuals have a better overall quality of life.

The average life expectancy for people with MS is around five to 10 years lower than average, but the gap appears to be getting smaller as therapies aiming to treat progressive MS continue to be researched.

Foundations like Kiss Goodbye to MS and MS Australia have more advice, support and information for anyone who is affected by MS, or if you simply want to know more about the condition.

Do you know someone with MS? Did you know how much treatment has improved for the disease? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

– With PA

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