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Understanding Multiple Sclerosis

MS is a chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system. 

You can live a full, healthy, active life with MS. The first step is understanding it. 

What is MS?

  • MS is a chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves.
  • MS is an immune-mediated disease, which means that the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and tissues in the CNS. This causes inflammation and damage. 
  • Specifically, this inflammation causes damage to myelin, the protective coating around nerve fibers. It can also damage the underlying nerve fiber and the cells that make myelin. 
  • Certain episodes of inflammation can cause new or worsening symptoms. These episodes are called relapses, attacks, or exacerbations.

What Happens When Myelin is Damaged?

When myelin is damaged, messages within and between the brain and spinal cord are disrupted and sometimes stop completely. The disrupted messages cause a variety of symptoms that differ from one person to another. 

MS symptoms can come and go in an unpredictable fashion. If you have MS, it is important to know what kinds of symptoms can occur, so you can recognize them and work with your healthcare team to address them. 

What Are the Possible Symptoms of MS?

  • Fatigue, which is the most common symptom
  • Difficulties with walking
  • Balance issues
  • Vision loss, blurred vision, or double vision
  • Trouble with bladder and bowel functions
  • Cognitive changes, such as difficulties with your memory and thinking
  • Mood changes, such as depression or anxiety
  • Pain, numbness, and tingling sensations

You might experience many of these symptoms or just a few. Your symptoms may come and go over the course of your MS. Although your symptoms may be similar to other people with MS, when they occur and how they feel to you are unique. 

While we know that damage in the CNS causes these many and varied symptoms, you're probably what causes MS in the first place.

What Causes MS?

At this point, the exact cause of MS is not known. But it is believed to be caused by a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors that we don’t completely understand. 

MS is not directly inherited, meaning it is not passed down through generations. But genes play a role in the risk of developing MS. 

Research has identified over 200 genes that each contribute a small amount to the risk of developing MS.  For example, genes that control inflammation and autoimmunity may malfunction and contribute to developing the disease.

In addition to some gene variations, there are several other factors that are known to increase a person’s risk of developing MS. These include: 

  • Previous infection with Epstein-Barr virus
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Childhood obesity
  • Cigarette smoking (including second-hand smoke)

None of these risk factors are known to be a direct cause of MS, but each can contribute to someone’s risk of developing MS.

What Does Life with MS Look Like?

The future is impossible to predict, but you have a lot more control than you may think.

First, know that MS is not considered a fatal disease. 

It is a chronic illness, meaning you will live with it your whole life, and there is no cure at this time. But MS is manageable.

  • Most people with MS live very close to a normal lifespan. 
  • You and your healthcare team will work together to manage your MS, which includes:
    • Managing your disease progression with a disease-modifying therapy
    • Optimizing your overall health and working to reduce comorbidities
    • Creating a healthy lifestyle and improving your well-being to help you live as full and active a life as possible.

Living with MS is an ongoing learning process.

  • Your MS symptoms will likely vary from day to day, and sometimes from morning to night. For example, most people find that fatigue worsens significantly over the course of the day.
  • Symptoms may also vary with your activities, the weather, your level of stress, and a variety of other factors. 
  • You'll have some awesome days and some that aren’t so good. 

The more you learn about MS and about your own body, the better able you’ll be to make the best of your good times and deal with your down times. 

How To Take Charge of Your Health

It may not feel like it at first, but you are in charge of your life with MS. 

Managing the Disease

One of the first things your doctor will bring up—and if they don't, you should—is a disease-modifying therapy (DMT).

The evidence is clear: early and ongoing treatment with a DMT reduces the frequency of MS relapses and slows disease progression

Managing Relapses and Symptoms

While your DMT is doing its job, your healthcare team will be there to help you manage any MS relapses and symptoms. Together, your goal will be finding the things that help you function at your best, using strategies like physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech/language therapy, and emotional support.

Comprehensive MS care involves all these components. Comprehensive care is easiest to find at MS Centers, but you can create your own team of providers to work together and optimize your healthcare.

Living Well with MS

Managing MS is more than just controlling the disease and its symptoms. It's setting goals, making plans, and deciding your future by taking control of your wellness.

Tending to your overall wellbeing makes the difference between living with MS and living well with it.

There are dozens of wellness factors outside of this disease that you have control over. These include:

  • Making informed decisions for your health care
  • Exploring (and enjoying) strategies for an optimal diet
  • Finding the exercise and physical activity that works for you
  • Caring for your mental and emotional health
  • Employing new cognitive strategies
  • Adapting your work and home environments
  • Fostering your relationships

By focusing on the things you can do, you'll find that your wellness impacts your MS in surprising ways.

Where to Begin on Your Wellness Journey

If you have no idea where to start, here are some ideas for your first steps on the path to wellness.

  1. If you smoke, quit. Stopping can slow your MS disease progression while also improving your overall health.
  2. Have regular check-ups with your primary care provider. Get the preventive health screenings recommended for your age group. Make sure to have regular dental care (yes, really), and receive the vaccinations that are recommended for you.
  3. Start, resume, or create a new exercise plan. It's a great idea to work with a physical therapist to develop a plan for activity that's geared to your ability level. You'll find that there is an abundance of benefits, such as reducing fatigue, boosting your mood, improving your cognitive function.
  4. Create a healthy diet for yourself. While there's is no single diet that has been proven to impact the MS disease course, there are recommendations for people with MS to eat in ways that can improve wellbeing and reduce the risk for comorbidities.
  5. Get adequate sleep. It's essential to your overall health. Unfortunately, despite being plagued by fatigue all day, many people with MS also experience sleep disturbances. So talk to your healthcare provider about your sleep patterns if this is a struggle for you.
  6. Pay attention to your mental health and emotional wellbeing. Being diagnosed and living with MS will involve healthy grieving. However, MS can also cause clinical depression, in addition to other real, scary emotional challenges. Reach out to a mental health professional to help you work through these emotions or receive the appropriate treatment.
  7. Tap into your spiritualityFinding spiritual practices that help you feel grounded and connected to the world around you can significantly enhance your emotional and physical health. 


Comprehensive MS Care

Watch the webinar below to learn about the stages of MS, how to treat it throughout your life, and how to get comprehensive MS care.

Learn More About Comprehensive MS Care

Stories from the MS Community

One of the best ways to understand life with MS is to hear from those who live with it. Find inspiration, motivation, and understanding by listening to the Can Do MS podcast.

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