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Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder of the central nervous system
(brain and spinal cord), which is characterised by decreased nerve function
due to myelin loss and secondary axonal damage.
Symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) develop as a result of multiple lesions
in the brain and spinal cord and the gradual destruction of myelin, a fatty
substance that covers the nerve fibers. The patient's symptoms vary
depending on the areas of the brain or spinal cord affected. It is diagnosed
most frequently between 20 to 40 years old and is one of the major causes of
disability in adults.
Patients may present with a wide variety of symptoms, such as loss of
vision, double vision, nystagmus, difficulty with speech, tremors, unsteady
gait or numbness. Various cognitive impairments are also common, such as
difficulty performing multiple tasks at once, difficulty following detailed
instructions, and loss of short term memory. (A diagnosis of MS requires two
distinct neurological episodes--that is, two different symptoms, or the same
symptom vanishing and recurring.)
The reasons for disability are not only the neurologic symptoms but also
various complications such as muscle spasticity, fatigue, urinary
incontinence, and depression.
The symptoms can vary in intensity from time to time. An acute flare-up of
the symptoms, either an increase in intensity or a new symptom, is referred
to as an exacerbation. The disease is often categorized based on the
frequency and consistency of the symptoms as either relapsing remitting or
chronic progressive. In relapsing remitting MS, patients may experience an
exacerbation that may go away by itself after a period of time, and symptoms
may stay relapsed indefinitely or return at random. In chronic progressive,
the symptoms continue to increase without relapse. These descriptions are
based on symptoms and not on the underlying disease mechanisms. Recent
Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies show that nerve damage continues in
relapsing remitting patients even if symptoms subside. In either case, a
great majority of diagnosed patients end up with permanent disability due to
accumulating myelin loss and axonal damage. (One Canadian study, autopsying
several thousand people who had died from all causes, found that less than
half of the people with brain lesions and loss of myelin had been diagnosed
with MS; most of the undiagnosed cases involved people with few if any
symptoms, rather than the difficulty in diagnosing MS.)
Exacerbations can occur at any time, but some outside sources can definitely
influence their recurrence. Physical or emotional stress are common causes.
Heat is also a common problem, and many patients must avoid intense
exercise, saunas, or even hot showers.
Myelin destruction is now known to occur due to an autoimmune attack (a kind
of inflammation resulting from antibodies or lymphocytes that the body
produces against its own tissues). The exact cause of this inflammation is
not known. Current studies suggest that there is a combination of genetic
predisposition plus an outside agent, perhaps viral, that cause a person to
contract the disease. Thus, MS patients are asked not to donate blood.
There is no known definite cure for multiple sclerosis. Treatment is aimed
maintaining the maximum quality of life. There are three primary forms of
medication used to treat the symptoms:
1. During an exacerbation, corticosteroids (such as prednisone) or
azathioprine (experimental) are used to reduce inflammation, relieving
stress on the damaged nerves and myelin. While, corticosteroids are
more beneficial for acute attacks, azathioprine is expected to be
effective within a long period of time.
2. Longer-term treatment using interferon beta-1a or 1b (Avonex,
Betaseron, Rebif) or glatiramer acetate (Copaxone) is intended to
regulate the autoimmune attacks. As of 2001, interferon beta is the
only medication shown to actually slow the progression of the myelin
damage in a significant number of patients.
3. A variety of medications, many originally developed for other purposes,
are used to treat chronic symptoms. For example, the anti-seizure drug
Neurontin, as well as anti-spasmatics, such as Baclofen and Zanaflex,
are useful against spasticity; SSRIs are used for depression; and a
variety of stimulants are used to treat fatigue.
Although the exact cause is unknown, statistical studies show that people
who live in cold climates before the age of 15 are more likely to contract
it. In addition, genetics play a significant role in whether an individual
will contract MS.
Studies investigating any relationship between MS and Chronic Inflammatory
Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP), with/to Hepatitis C (HCV), are continuing.