Sunday, 6 February 2011

Multiple Sclerosis

I have a condition called multiple sclerosis. I was diagnosed with it when I was 42, but looking back I had had symptoms for a long time before then.

Multiple sclerosis (or MS) is the most common disabling neurological condition affecting young adults. In the UK, around 100,000 people have MS.The cause isn't known: it seems likely that a combination of genes make a person susceptible, and then something in the environment triggers the start of the condition.

One thing that seens to be very significant in whether an individual develops MS or not is where they live - specifically where they are brought up. MS is more common in areas further away from the equator. The map below shows clearly how the risk of MS varies around the globe. The red and orange areas are those with the highest risk, shading to green with the lowest risk.

How can distance from the equator make a difference? One way may be to do with vitamin D. Vitamin D is important in regulating the immune system response, and one source of it is sunlight. A much higher proportion of people with MS (in the northern hemisphere) are born in March, April and May than in other months.: their mothers were therefore pregnant with them in the dark days of winter. Scientists suspect that these people suffered from a vitamin D deficiency while they were still in the womb, and this has led to them being susceptible to developing MS in later life.

Scotland (where I was born and brought up) has the highest incidence of MS in the world. Schoolboy Ryan Mclaughlin has started the Shine on Scotland campaign, trying to get vitamin D supplements recommended to every expectant mother in Scotland, as folic acid is already.

So what's actually going on in MS? It's an auto-immune condition, where the body's own immune system begins to attack part of the nervous system. Surrounding the nerves is a substance called myelin, which acts like electrical insulation and helps messages travel to and fro between the brain and the rest of the body. In MS, the myelin is damaged by the immune system, and the signals slow down, get distorted, pass across to another nerve fibre (like short circuiting), or don't get anywhere at all. In time, there can also be damage to the nerve itself.

The damage leaves scars known as lesions or plaques, which can be seen on MRI scans. These MRIs are often the first stage in making a formal diagnosis of MS.

The nervous system links to all bodily systems, so many different types of symptoms can appear in MS. The exact symptoms depend on which part of the nervous system is affected. Symptoms can include:
  • Difficulties with balance and dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Visual problems
  • Numbness, tingling, pins and needles, and other "strange sensations"- often painful
  • Bladder problems
  • Cognitive problems
  • Stiffness or spasms in muscles
  • Emotional and mood changes
  • Tremor
  • Bowel problems
  • Sexual problems
  • Speech difficulties
  • Swallowing difficulties
I could go on...and on! But this is quite enough, if not too much, for one post. I'll return to the topic at another date and talk about different types of MS, and some of the treatments available.

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