What is MS?
MS is short for Multiple Sclerosis; a neurological condition that affects the central nervous system. Myelin is a substance in our central nervous system that protects our nerve fibres, which help messages from our brain travel to the rest of our body quickly and smoothly. Our immune system helps our body fight off infections but in people with MS our immune system mistakes Myelin for a foreign body and attacks it. This damages the Myelin and strips it from our nerve fibres, which disrupts the messages travelling from our brain to the rest of our body. Messages can slow down, become distorted or not get through at all.
Who is affected?
About 10,000 people in the UK have MS. It is normally diagnosed in people aged between 20 and 40 and some types affect more women than men. Once diagnosed MS will stay with you forever but there are treatments to help manage the condition and symptoms. Different types of MS have different symptoms.
We don’t know the cause yet so there is no cure but research into this is being done all the time.
Types of MS
There are different types of MS and each type affects everyone differently so sufferers of the condition won’t necessarily experience it in the same way.
Relapsing Remitting MS (RRMS) – This is the most common type of MS and affects around 85% of everyone diagnosed with the condition. It means that symptoms appear (a relapse) and then fade away, partially or completely (remitting). The “Relapsing Remitting” name can help you to find the best treatments or help explain the condition to friends and family but it doesn’t predict exactly how MS will affect you. This type of MS generally affects more women than men.
Primary Progressive MS (PPMS) – This is the second most common type of MS, affecting 10-15% of people diagnosed with the condition. From the first (primary) symptom this type of MS is progressive, so it gradually gets worse over time. Early symptoms often develop slowly and the speed they progress varies from person to person and over time.
Secondary Progressive MS (SPMS) – This type of MS often comes after Relapsing Remitting MS with an average of 65% of people developing Secondary Progressive MS. This type of MS is usually characterised by a worsening of the disability rather than by relapses followed by recovery. However, some people do suffer from relapses which can make it harder to tell if your symptoms are due to progression or the lingering effect of a relapse.
Benign MS – This type of MS often occurs if there is complete recovery after a small amount of relapses. Unfortunately relapses can occur many years after a diagnosis of benign MS but this is rare.
Symptoms of MS
People with MS won’t experience all the symptoms and those they do experience won’t all be at the same time. There are a wide range of symptoms and what could be an early symptom for one person may not be a symptom at all for another person. Symptoms of the condition can include;
- Problems with balance, walking and dizziness
- Bladder and bowel problems
- Blurred vision and loss of sight
- Problems with memory and focus
- Pain. This could feel like stabbing pains, squeezing, crushing or burning
- Muscle spasms or stiffness
- Speech difficulties
It is important to remember that usually people don’t experience all the symptoms.
There is no cure for MS but medication such as disease modifying drugs can help reduce the number of relapses a person suffers. They are not a cure for MS and not all disease modifying drugs are available on the NHS. Deciding which drug to take is a decision to make with your neurologist. For more information about these drugs go to www.mssociety.org.uk
Exercise can help improve symptoms of MS and regular exercise can keep the body working to its full potential for longer. Exercise can also improve muscle strength, helping with mobility or weakness. It’s important to find an exercise that is enjoyable so it doesn’t feel like a chore. A physiotherapist could help in finding an exercise that’s suitable.
Physiotherapy may also be useful to manage symptoms. A physiotherapist can assess the physical difficulties of someone and work on specific problem areas that affect day-to-day activities, mobility and independence. Physiotherapy can be particularly useful when recovering from a relapse or if symptoms are beginning to progress. Your GP or MS Nurse will be able to refer you to a physiotherapist.
Complementary and alternative therapies, otherwise known as CAMs, can be beneficial to people with MS. These are health related therapies or disciplines that are not part of mainstream medical care. There are a wide range of CAMs out there, varying from something standard and inexpensive like Pilates, to something more unusual and unproven, such as bee sting therapy.
Some CAMs may include;
- Herbal medicine
- Honey Bee venom
- T’ai Chi
Complimentary therapies is an area that isn’t well researched so there isn’t much evidence to prove how effective and safe these therapies and disciplines are. For more information about the benefits and disadvantages of complimentary therapies go to www.mssociety.org.uk
Special diets such as the Swank Diet, The Best Bet Diet or George Jelinek’s Overcoming MS Programme, have been known to help sufferers of MS by reducing the rate of relapses; however some people with the condition say they don’t help at all. If someone you care for does decide to try a new diet it is worth them speaking to their GP first because it is essential the body still gets all the essential nutrients. For more information about special diets please visit www.mssociety.org.uk
Being a Woman with MS
Ms affects more women than men. It is reported by women that some symptoms such as weakness, balance, fatigue and depression worsen around periods. If the time around periods becomes especially problematic it is possible to stop periods altogether by using certain contraceptive pills but the person you care for should speak to their GP first about this.
MS does not affect fertility; however certain medications can be unsafe during pregnancy. Research shows that relapses reduce during pregnancy, possibly because the hormone levels change. However, fatigue, balance, back pain, bladder and bowel problems can become worse. As hormone levels return to normal during the first 3 months after the baby is born the risk of relapse becomes higher.