What is Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (commonly abbreviated to MS) is an inflammatory disease in which myelin sheaths of fat around the axons of the brain and the spinal cord are damaged, leading to demyelination, scarring, and a broad range of signs and symptoms. The disease usually first takes hold in young adults, and is most commonly found in females. MS gradually and severely affects the ability of nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain to communicate with one another. Communication between nerve cells occurs when the cells emit electrical signals, called action potentials, down long fibres called axons. These axons are wrapped in an insulating, protective layer of fat called myelin. A person’s own immune system begins attacking and damaging the myelin in MS. The cause of the disease remains unknown, even though extensive research over the past 20 years has taken place to try and pinpoint the cause. There are theories that suggest MS could possibly be genetic or caused by infection. Different environmental risk factors have also been taken into account in scientific research.

A person suffering from MS can endure almost any neurological symptom or sign, but main signs include changes in sensation, for example loss of sensitivity, tingling, pricking or numbness (clinically known as hypoesthesia and paraesthesia); muscle weakness and spasms; problems with balance and coordination, speech, swallowing and sight. MS symptoms usually happen during relapses (acute periods of worsening), in a gradually aggressive deterioration of neurological function, or a combination of both. These relapses are, unfortunately for the patient, unpredictable and without warning, with on average one and a half relapses occurring every year. Luckily, some attacks are preceded by universal triggers. During the spring and summer, relapses happen more frequently, and viral infections such as a common cold or the flu can also be the first step to causing a relapse. Stress has also been proven to have a negative effect on sufferers, and they find themselves more susceptible to relapses.

Several therapies that have developed over the years from extensive research have been proven to slow down the effects of MS, even though there is unfortunately no known cure as of yet. After an attack there are primary aims of the therapy; to return functions in the body, to prevent disabilities from an attack, and to prevent another from happening. Unfortunately some patients can suffer from adverse effects to the strong medication. For acute relapses, high doses of intravenous (meaning into the vein) corticosteroids, such as methylprednisolone, are given. These are, on the whole, effective in relieving symptoms in the short term, but unfortunately do not have much impact in the long term.

Although I have outlined the medical side of this devastating disease, it doesn’t end there. A person suffering from MS, and their loved ones around them, find the disease extremely hard to deal with, both mentally and physically. I chose this topic because I have witnessed at first hand how debilitating this disease is for the sufferer and their family as the disease progresses to its inevitable conclusion. It has affected healthy, active women on both sides of my family, and I have watched them meet and overcome each difficulty with great strength and sheer determination. Both these women have had extremely supportive family networks behind them each step of the way, but for those not so fortunate the charity MS Ireland offers a secondary supportive network. This charity both helps the sufferers and their families, but also participates in research to try and find an eventual cure for this dreadful disease.

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