Multiple sclerosis has approximately 1 million people in the United States, but this complex disease is not widely known.
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
Most of the nerve fibers in the body are covered in a protective layer called the myelin sheath. This layer isolates the nerve fibers and allows signals to move quickly and precisely along them. In multiple sclerosis (MS), parts of the myelin sheath and nerves that lie under the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves are damaged or destroyed. This prevents the nerves from signaling properly.
While the cause of MS is unknown, it can be triggered by an autoimmune reaction in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. This autoimmune response creates inflammation that damages the myelin sheath and underlying nerves.
Women are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis than men, and genetics can also play a role in its development. Some research shows that perinatal exposure to pesticides can increase a person’s risk of developing MS. Lifestyle factors, including decreased vitamin D levels, smoking, and obesity can also increase your risk.
What are the symptoms
The symptoms of MS vary widely depending on which nerves are affected by the disease. Some of the most common symptoms are tingling and / or numbness, tiredness, muscle weakness, blurred and / or double vision, poor coordination, impaired balance, memory loss, urination, difficulty concentrating, and depression. Less common symptoms that may occur with more advanced MS are tremors, blindness, and paralysis.
Many people with MS alternate between periods when they are symptomatic (relapses) followed by periods when they are symptomless (remissions). Others will experience a gradual worsening of symptoms over time. Remissions can last for years, and symptoms sometimes go away completely.
What are the forms of MS?
It’s impossible to predict how MS will develop in a person, but it usually occurs in one of four ways. Based on the course of the disease, MS can be divided into one of the following types:
- Clinically isolated syndrome (ACS), when a person has their first episode of symptoms that suggest the onset of multiple sclerosis
- Recurrent remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), when a person alternates between remission and relapse without the disease getting worse between relapses
- Secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS), a more progressive disease course, sometimes after relapsing-remitting MS
- Primary progressive multiple sclerosis (PPMS), in which the disease progresses slowly but continuously without many (or no) relapses or remissions
Although MS is a complex disease that affects everyone differently, diagnosing the type of MS can help determine the best treatment plan.
Other health problems in women with MS
Unfortunately, people with MS are not without other health problems. The simultaneous occurrence of two or more chronic diseases is called comorbidity. A systematic review by the International Advisory Committee on Clinical Trials in MS found that the five most common comorbidities in people with MS were depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and chronic lung disease.
Other research supports these results, suggesting that vascular problems like high blood pressure and heart disease, and mood disorders like depression and anxiety, often coexist with multiple sclerosis. Obesity is another comorbidity that often affects patients and sometimes makes the symptoms of the disease worse.
In addition to comorbidities, there are other health problems that are specific to women with multiple sclerosis. Many women report that MS symptoms seem to worsen during menstruation and that the onset of menopause can also make their symptoms worse.
Treatment and care options
As with many other diseases, early detection is key to treating MS. The symptoms that appear first are tingling, numbness, burning, and itching. Weakness or loss of dexterity in one leg or hand is another early sign, as is blurred vision. Women who experience symptoms that they suspect may be a sign of MS should speak to a health care provider.
Because multiple sclerosis can be difficult to identify, it may be necessary to see more than one doctor before making a diagnosis. Different specialists may use different diagnostic tools, including an MRI of the brain, cervical vertebrae, and chest. visual evoked potential tests, lumbar puncture; A blood test; and an optical coherence tomography.
Once multiple sclerosis is diagnosed, treatment usually includes medication to fight inflammation. The sooner a woman can start treatment for MS, the more likely she will be able to reduce the effects on the myelin sheath and nerves.
Because the symptoms of MS are so diverse and manifest in different patterns, monitoring and controlling these symptoms is key to living successfully with MS. Regardless of the type of MS a woman has, personalized treatment can provide support that is tailored to her particular needs.
Can MS Be Prevented?
It’s difficult to say what, if anything, can be done to prevent multiple sclerosis because we don’t know exactly what is causing the disease. However, certain lifestyle changes can help people with MS relieve their symptoms. A comprehensive approach to managing MS that includes regular exercise, healthy eating, and mental health support can complement traditional therapies.
For more information, see the HealthyWomen Multiple Sclerosis Platform and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Resources are available there to help people overcome the challenges of living with MS.
Bilingual fact sheet from the National MS Society
Merck Manual – Spanish Edition
GAEM MS Research from the Barcelona Foundation
This resource was created with the assistance of Biogen.