A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

What everyone should know about multiple sclerosis

Mother and daughter chatting while walking arm in arm - Multiple Scelrosis

Many new treatments are coming out that help prevent worsening of multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is the number one non-traumatic disabling disease for young adults in America.

“By estimations, 400,000-500,000 people have MS in the United States,” said Dr. Paula Aston, a neurologist at Marshfield Clinic. “That is probably an underestimation because of difficulty with making a diagnosis.”

Diagnosing multiple sclerosis

Some difficulty in calculating MS cases comes because the disease is usually diagnosed by exclusion. When other diagnoses are ruled out, people with specific symptoms may be diagnosed with MS. MRIs and spinal fluid analysis also may be part of the diagnostic process.

MS destroys myelin, which surrounds nerves and helps electrical impulses carry back and forth. With MS, the immune system attacks myelin thinking it is a foreign object in the body.

Risk factors

“We don’t know exactly one cause of MS, but the current theory is that environmental factors, genetics and immune system responses may be causes,” Aston said.

Lack of vitamin D, and, oddly enough, your distance from the equator could be related to getting MS. The further north you are from the equator, the higher your risk for MS, Aston said.

Women are about three times more likely than men to get MS. Caucasians are the most susceptible to MS, but all races get the disease. And 20-50 is the most common age range to be diagnosed.

Variations of the disease

There are four types of MS: relapsing-remitting, secondary-progressive, primary-progressive and chronic-progressive.

“Our thinking is changing a little about these types,” Aston said. “We’re finding that what’s important is whether a person has active or inactive disease.”

It is rare to die from MS, and people with it usually have a normal lifespan.

Effects of multiple sclerosis

Inflammation of the optic nerve, double vision, trouble moving the eyes, limb weakness, numbness or tingling and bladder problems are all potential effects of MS.

Exercise helps with MS prevention and is good for people who have the disease. Aston advises patients to avoid processed foods and items high in sugar. As devastating as MS is, Aston is hopeful about the future.

“This is a really exciting time to be treating MS because there are new treatments coming out all the time that prevent worsening of the disease,” she said.

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