What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Imagine waking up each morning and not knowing whether you will be able to move your legs, get out bed or see clearly. For many people with multiple sclerosis, a chronic, often disabling disease, this is a reality. MS is an unpredictable disease with no known cause and no cure. This is why millions of people are joining in the fight against MS.

Symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from person to person and from time to time in the same person. One person may experience abnormal fatigue while another might have severe vision problems. A person with MS could have loss of balance and muscle coordination making walking difficult; another person with MS could have slurred speech, tremors, stiffness, and bladder problems. While some symptoms will come and go over the course of the disease, others may be more lasting.

MS is thought to be an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. The central nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord and the optic nerves. Surrounding and protecting the nerve fibers of the nervous system is a fatty tissue called myelin, which helps nerve fibers conduct electrical impulses.

In MS, myelin is lost in multiple areas, leaving scar tissue called sclerosis. These damaged areas are also known as plaques or lesions. Sometimes the nerve fiber itself is damaged or broken.

Myelin not only protects nerve fibers, but makes their job possible. When myelin or the nerve fiber is destroyed or damaged, the ability of the nerves to conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain is disrupted, and this produces the various symptoms of MS.

While the exact cause of MS is unknown, most researchers believe that the damage to myelin results from an abnormal response by the body’s immune system. Normally, the immune system defends the body against foreign invaders such as viruses or bacteria. In autoimmune diseases, the body attacks its own tissue. In the case of MS, myelin is attacked.

Scientists do not yet know what triggers the immune system to do this. Most agree that several factors are involved, including genetics, gender and environmental triggers.

Approximately 400,000 Americans acknowledge having MS, and every week about 200 people are diagnosed. The Minnesota Chapter of the MS Society represents an estimated 7,500 people with MS in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

Anyone may develop MS, but there are some patterns. Most people with MS are diagnosed in the prime of life, between the ages of 20 and 50. Plus, two to three times as many women as men have MS. Studies indicate that genetic factors make certain individuals more susceptible than others, but there is no evidence that MS is directly inherited. Also, MS occurs more commonly among people with northern European ancestry, but people of African, Asian and Hispanic backgrounds are not immune.

At this time, no single test is available to identify or rule out MS. Several tests and procedures are needed. These include taking a complete medical history and performing nervous system functioning tests such as reflex, balance and vision tests. To diagnose MS, doctors commonly use MRI scans to give detailed views of the brain to identify areas of nerve damage. Spinal taps are also used to test the spinal fluid for signs of the disease.

Although there is still no cure for MS, there are various strategies available to modify the disease course, treat exacerbations, manage symptoms and improve function and safety. Currently, there are five FDA-approved therapies available that can help slow the progression of the disease. In combination, these treatments and symptom management strategies enhance the quality of life for people living with MS.

How does the National MS Society, MN Chapter help?

The National MS Society, Minnesota Chapter offers countless educational, support and recreational programs across the state for people living with MS and their families. One of the most popular is MS Camp, a six-day leisure program at Camp Courage in Maple Lake, MN. Participants have the opportunity to connect with new and old friends and take a vacation from the daily challenges of living with the disease.

The chapter also offers eight special events, such as the Christopher & Banks MS Walk presented by Serono/Pfizer. Event participants raise funds to support MS research and programs for people living with the disease.

The chapter is committed to raising public awareness of MS. March 13-17, 2006 has been designated as MS Awareness Week. Throughout the week, the Minnesota Chapter will educate people across the chapter area about MS, the important work of the MS Society and how they can get involved with the chapter.

If you are interested in attending programs, volunteering or registering for a special event, or would like to learn more about MS and the National MS Society, Minnesota Chapter, visit www.mssociety.org or call 1-800-FIGHT-MS.