Nearly 1 million people in the United States have multiple sclerosis, but this complex condition 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 cover isolates the nerve fibers and allows signals to move quickly and accurately along them. In multiple sclerosis (MS), parts of the myelin sheath and underlying nerves in the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves are damaged or destroyed. This prevents the nerves from signaling properly.
Although 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 reaction causes inflammation that damages the myelin sheath and underlying nerves.
Women are two to three times more likely to develop MS than men, and genetics can also play a role in the development of MS. Some research shows that perinatal exposure to pesticides can increase a person’s risk of MS. Lifestyle factors such as low vitamin D levels, cigarette smoking, and obesity can also increase a person’s risk.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of MS vary widely depending on which nerves have been damaged by the disease. Some of the most common symptoms of MS are tingling and / or numbness, tiredness, muscle weakness, blurred and / or double vision, lack of coordination, problems balancing, 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 of being symptomatic (relapses) followed by periods of no symptom (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 types of MS?
It is impossible to predict how a person’s MS will develop, but it usually does one of four ways. Based on the course of the disease, MS can be classified into one of the following types:
- Relapse-remitting MS (RRMS), when a person alternates between remission and relapse without the disease getting worse between relapses
- Secondary progressive MS (SPMS), a more progressive disease that sometimes follows relapsing-remitting MS
- Primary progressive MS (PPMS), in which the disease progresses slowly but steadily without many (or no) relapses or remissions
Although MS is a complex condition that affects everyone differently, diagnosing the type of MS can help determine the best course of treatment.
Other health concerns for women with MS
Unfortunately, people with MS are not exempt from other health conditions. 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 in addition to MS, vascular problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease, and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, are common. Obesity is another comorbidity that often affects people with MS and sometimes makes the symptoms of the disease worse.
In addition to comorbidities, there are other health concerns that are specific to women with MS. Many women report that their MS symptoms seem to worsen around the time of their menstruation, and the onset of menopause can also make symptoms of MS worse.
Treatment and care options
As with so many other diseases, early detection is key to treating MS. The symptoms of MS that tend to show up 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 doctor.
Since MS can be difficult to identify, it may be necessary to see more than one provider before making a diagnosis. Different specialists may use different diagnostic methods, including magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, cervix, and thoracic vertebra. visual evoked potential tests, spinal tap; Blood tests; and optical coherence tomography.
Once MS is diagnosed, treatment usually includes drugs that target inflammation. The sooner a woman can start treating her MS, the greater the chance she can lessen the effects on her myelin sheath and nerves.
Because the symptoms of MS are so diverse and manifest in different patterns, monitoring and managing these symptoms is key to successfully managing MS. Regardless of the type of MS a woman has, individual treatment can provide support tailored to her individual needs.
Is MS Preventable?
It is difficult to say what, if anything, can be done to prevent MS because we don’t know exactly what is causing it. However, certain lifestyle changes can help people with MS relieve their symptoms. An integrative approach to managing MS that includes regular exercise, healthy eating, and mental health support can complement traditional therapies.
For more information, visit the HealthyWomen Multiple Sclerosis Hub and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which has resources to help people meet the challenges of living with MS.
This resource was created with the assistance of Biogen.