5 Things You Should Know About MS
Multiple Sclerosis, otherwise known as “MS” is a debilitating neurological disease that attacks the nervous system. To better understand what MS does, think of nerves as wires. Inside a wire, there are small cords made up of copper and other conducive metals that serve to transmit electricity from one end of the wire to another. These wires are used in all sorts of electrical devices, such as computers, lamps, and phones. Around the wire is usually a coating, often black or white, that protects the delicate metal cords inside. These cords ensure that the electrical transmission reaches its destination safely and quickly without any outside interference.
Our nervous system works similarly – our nerves are akin to the cords, and they transmit electrical impulses from the brain to various parts of the body (and vice versa). Around each nerve is a layer of myelin, a substance that acts like the coating around electrical cords. It not only protects the nerves, but makes the electrical impulse flow faster through the body. When you are born, your nerves do not have this substance. This affects a baby’s coordination and ability to interact with the world – if you’ve ever seen a 6 month old try to pick up a small object with their fingers, you know they struggle with this task. This is because the nerves that allow the brain to send the impulses throughout the body are not fine-tuned yet. As we grow older and repeat these tasks enough, myelin begins to grow around the nerves we have deemed necessary. This myelin allows for faster, more precise impulses to be sent to the appropriate parts of the body, and it is a critical aspect of our nervous system.
When a person has MS, the all-too-important myelin begins to break down as the body starts to attack itself. As the myelin deteriorates, scar tissue (or “sclerosis”) forms around the damage myelin. While this protects the nerves in lieu of the crucial myelin, they become damaged, and their function decreases over time. Soon, the scar tissue overwhelms the nerves, and the person with MS is soon unable to do the basic things they once took for granted, such as jogging, walking up stairs, or even getting out of bed. It’s this debilitating disorder that robs many of their freedom and the lives they once knew.
One truly unfortunate aspect of MS is that it’s not very understood – many don’t know about the horrible pain and suffering that people with MS endure. Here’s a list of things that people with MS wish everyone knew about this debilitating disorder:
It’s Unpredictable – When someone has a cold, their symptoms are relatively predictable. Other diseases and disorders fall into predictable patterns as well and are easily identifiable by not only medical professionals but the people around them as well. MS is not one of those disorders – it can vary wildly from person to person. This can make an MS diagnosis really scary, as the element of uncertainty means that preparing for the worst can be difficult (since you don’t even know what the worst might be). Additionally, MS can strike at any age, race, gender, or lifestyle – anyone is susceptible to MS. For example, one 25 year old woman went from working out seven days a week to being completely bed-ridden due to MS. This unpredictability can be crippling to someone with MS, so offering a listening ear to a person with MS can help them cope with the unknown.
It’s Silent – MS holds the distinction of being a “silent disease” or “invisible disability”. A person with MS may look like anyone else without the condition, but they may be suffering from blurred vision, chronic pain, or sensory problems. They may seem like they’re okay or that they’re not suffering, but in truth, every waking moment is a struggle for someone with MS. Sometimes MS will go into remission and they might look like they’re fine, but even then, MS continues to progress. When it relapses again, MS comes back as strong as ever with more severe and sometimes additional symptoms. Being aware of the existence of MS whether or not you can see it is the first step in understanding a person who suffers from it.
It Comes And Goes – If someone with MS is seeking treatment, they will often experience relapses and remissions. A remission occurs when the person stops experiencing MS symptoms, and a relapse happens when the MS symptoms start up again. Remissions vary in their length of time, and can sometimes go on for weeks, months, or even years; however, the person still has MS during remissions, so the body will still attack the myelin sheaths. Eventually, the person will relapse and the symptoms will return. The roller coaster of symptoms and emotions during this time are frightening, and many people with MS experience anxiety, depression, fear, and sadness. By becoming part of their support system, a person with MS can better cope with these difficult periods of relapse.
It’s Chronic – Even if a person with MS is experiencing remission, the illness never truly goes away. MS is a chronic condition because there’s no known cure for it yet. While the disease is not fatal or life-threatening, a rare few may have complications that shorten their life expectancy. MS can be managed through treatment, medication, and lifestyle adjustments, but the underlying cause of MS – the breakdown of the myelin sheaths – remains. This means that no matter how much treatment or medication a person goes through, they will have MS for the rest of their lives. This can be very hard to cope with, so the best way to help someone with MS is to offer a shoulder to lean on when the times get tough for them. Just being there for someone with MS can help immensely as they learn to navigate their new life with their diagnosis.
It’s Cognitive – As explained before, the cognitive side of MS is what causes the physical problems that people with MS experience. The trouble with physical activity, such as walking or climbing stairs, stems from the myelin sheaths being destroyed by the body. So it makes sense that people who have MS will also experience cognitive deficiencies, such as memory problems, lack of concentration, spatial-reasoning, and problem-solving skills. This can lead to frustration, embarrassment, shame, depression and/or anger. By being patient with people who suffer from MS and understanding their symptoms, you can help them to lessen these negative feelings. Instead of berating them for forgetting important dates or their car keys, reassure them that everything will be fine and that mistakes happen.
Currently, there is no cure for MS. But there are ways that the people that suffer from it and those around them can learn to cope. By understanding these key things about MS, you can help someone with the chronic condition feel more comfortable and have an overall easier time dealing with the disorder. It may be a life-long disease, but with treatment, medication, lifestyle adjustments, and a strong support system, people with MS can learn to manage their condition and not only survive, but thrive.