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Multiple sclerosis: an explainer

Every year in Ireland, 250 people are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). A condition that affects the central nervous system, it often presents itself between the ages of 20 and 40. While MS is a serious condition, there are many treatment options that can help people enjoy a good quality of life.

What is MS?

The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord. These work together to send messages around the body through your nerves. Most nerves are covered with a substance called myelin, which insulates them and allows messages to be sent to muscles and other areas. With MS, this myelin becomes damaged, which in turn stops messages being sent and causes symptoms such as spasticity and mobility problems.

There are two types of MS. Most people suffer from relapsing-remitting MS. This means that people have long periods where they don’t suffer from any symptoms at all and then will have relapses. In a relapse, symptoms will appear, worsen over a period of time and then slowly improve before disappearing completely.

The second type of MS is primary-progressive MS, where there are no periods of remission and symptoms get more severe over time.

Causes

MS is an autoimmune condition, meaning that the body’s immune system starts to attack itself by mistake. There is no definitive answer as to why the body does this, but it is suspected to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. For example, if a family member suffers from MS, you may be more like to develop it. 

Women are 2-3 times more likely to develop MS than men but, again, the reasons behind this are unclear. It has also been shown that living farther away from the equator increases your risk of developing MS. This may be due to a lack of sunlight and vitamin D or other environmental factors.

Symptoms & treatment

There are many symptoms when dealing with MS and they tend to be unpredictable. The most common symptoms include fatigue, muscle spasms and weakness, pain, mobility problems, numbness and tingling.

There is no cure for MS, so treatment focuses on alleviating the symptoms and improving quality of life. Many people will need a combination of therapies, including occupational therapy for mobility problems.

When treating a relapse, a course of steroids will be prescribed. Other medications such as gabapentin may be used to treat muscle stiffness. The right lifestyle choices like regular exercise, eating a balanced diet and looking after your mental health through self-care are really important for dealing with MS.

While an MS diagnosis is serious, with the right support and treatment management, many people can live a very normal life with it.

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