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Multiple sclerosis: facts, statistics and what we don't know

by KATHY HUBBARD Contributing Writer
| March 3, 2021 1:00 AM

In simple terms, multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable disease affecting the central nervous system. It occurs when the immune system attacks the protective sheath called myelin that covers nerve fibers. The result is that the brain stops communicating with the rest of the body.

"Most MS experts believe it to be an autoimmune disease, although no specific antigens (proteins that stimulate the immune system) have been identified in MS," the National MS Society says.

Although there's no cure for MS, treatments can help speed recovery from attacks, modify the disease's course, and manage symptoms. The tricky part for the medical community is that signs and symptoms vary significantly from one person to the next.

A woman on an MS support group forum wrote that she had just been diagnosed with MS: "I have a lesion on my left optic nerve, and that eye is getting worse. I constantly have double vision and, for the last two weeks, have constant pain in my left eye. When I blink or move my eye, it really hurts and causes my whole head to hurt. It also causes my eye to feel gritty even though my eyes tear a lot."

A man said, "I have a numb hand that I've had for years. I suffer pure exhaustion and headaches, and when I do 30 minutes, or even 15 minutes, of light workout on my elliptical, I end up napping after."

A woman in her 60s said that when she was in her 20s, she felt like her legs were stuck in cement but didn't think much about it. She said getting her MS diagnosis was difficult.

Healthline.com says that symptoms can impact the mind, body, and senses in many different ways. The most common are blurred or double vision; hearing impairment; a reduced sense of taste and smell; numbness, tingling, or burning in limbs; loss of short-term memory; depression; headaches; facial pain; muscle spasms; difficulty swallowing; dizziness or vertigo; incontinence and constipation; weakness and fatigue; tremors and seizures; and a lack of sexual desire or erectile dysfunction.

MS is two to three times more common in women than in men. Women of northern European heritage are more likely to get MS than Native American, African and Asian descent. One of the most interesting statistics is that rates of MS are higher in those who live further from the equator.

"It's estimated that in southern US states (below the 37th parallel), the rate of MS is between 57 and 78 cases per 100,000 people. The rate is twice as high in northern states at about 110 to 140 cases per 100,000," Healthline says. This statistic gives researchers reason to believe that vitamin D plays a part in MS risk, but exactly what the role is the mystery.

An estimated 200 people are diagnosed each week in the US, mostly in the 20 to 50-year-old range. Identical twins have a one in three chance of both having the disease. Of those having MS, around fifteen percent have one or more family members who also have the disease leading experts to believe there is a genetic component.

I won't go into describing different types of multiple sclerosis in the limited space I have left. Healthline and Mayo Clinic, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society websites explain them much better than I can, anyway.

The key, as with any disease, is to get an accurate diagnosis as early as possible. You will want to tell your primary care provider about all of your symptoms, even if you think they're unrelated to each other.

A different woman on the forum said that thinking back to when she was first diagnosed, she wished someone had told her she wasn't crazy. "These symptoms that come and go are genuine. They may not be visible to other people, but you can see and feel them, and that's what counts. And not all doctors can see them and may not believe you when you tell them about what you're feeling. Don't let anybody talk you out of what you know."

That sounds like good advice to me.

Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.

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Kathy Hubbard