Multiple Sclerosis: What are the symptoms and how is it treated?

 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a lifelong autoimmune condition that affects the brain and the spinal cord, resulting in a wide range of symptoms that vary from person-to-person.

Depending on the severity, MS can be debilitating, leading to problems with vision, balance and movement.

While there is no cure, the disease can be treated and managed with various medications.

The NHS estimates that there are 100,000 people with the condition in the UK. Celebrities such as Christina Applegate, Jack Osbourne and Selma Blair, who was diagnosed in August 2018, are also among those in the public eye who live with MS.

Now, scientists have uncovered the strongest evidence yet that the condition is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, which is a common herpes virus.

A study of nearly 10 million military personnel in the US found that in nearly every person in the sample who developed MS had become infected with the Epstein-Barr virus beforehand.

Only five per cent of the recruits who developed MS were not infected with the virus when their first blood sample was taken. Of the 10 million personnel, 955 developed MS around 10 years after their first sample was taken.

All but one person who developed MS tested negative for antibodies against the Epstein-Barr virus. Another 34 who were initially uninfected when their first blood sample was taken became infected before they were diagnosed with MS.

Alberto Ascherio, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard University, told New Scientist that the findings were “really a turning point” and should lead to better treatment and prevention methods for MS.

However, it remains “elusive” how the virus leads to MS and scientists have called for further research.

Read on for everything you need to know about MS.

What is it?

MS inhibits how well a person’s central nervous system functions, subsequently interrupting the process whereby the brain sends signals to the rest of the body to enable you to do simple things like move, eat and see.

Normally, the nerve fibres in the central nervous system are protected by a substance called Myelin, which also helps fight off infections.

When a person has MS, the body mistakes Myelin for a harmful substance and therefore attacks it, leaving lesions on the central nervous system and preventing these signals from being sent around the body.

This can lead to severe nerve damage which may cause serious disability over time, according to the MS Society.

This kind of illness – whereby the immune system mistakes a crucial part of your body for a foreign substance and attacks it – is known as an autoimmune condition.

What causes it?

There’s no clear explanation as to why people develop MS, though the NHS states that possible causes include smoking, viral infections, lack of sunlight and your genetic makeup as those who have relatives with MS have a higher chance of contracting it.

It’s more common in women than men, but again there is no clear reason for this.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of MS manifest in different ways depending on which part of your central nervous system has been affected.

They are also incredibly unpredictable: some symptoms can be temporary while others will worsen over time.

Common symptoms as listed by the NHS include fatigue, vision problems, numbness, mobility problems, pain, depression, bowel problems, speech difficulty, muscle spasms and learning difficulties.

Life expectancy is also shorter for people with MS.

How is it diagnosed?

The symptoms of MS can be similar to several other illnesses, making it difficult to diagnose.

There is no single test for the disease and doctors are usually only able to confirm a case after a person has had two “attacks” of MS-like symptoms such as falling over for no reason/sudden loss of vision.

After this, doctors will typically carry out a neurological examination, where they will look for abnormalities in your coordination and your reflexes among other things to see if you’ve suffered nerve damage.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans may also be carried out to look for lesions in and around the brain and the spinal cord.

How is it treated?

Treatment for MS depends on what symptoms have arisen.

Some, such as blurred vision, will lead doctors to prescribe steroid tablets, while other physical symptoms, such as muscle spasms, will be treated with regular physiotherapy.

For those experiencing issues with thinking, learning and memory, you might be referred to a clinical psychologist.

It can take time to adapt to living with MS, but the NHS claims that with the right care and support, many people with the condition go on to live long and healthy lives.