Like with many diseases, early detection of multiple sclerosis (commonly referred to by it's acronym, MS) is key to getting the best treatments. The catch is that symptoms vary from person to person and can appear briefly and then disappear for several months, making detection tricky.
“The earlier the diagnosis and getting started on treatments, the better the long-term outcomes,” said Dr. Augusto Miravalle, assistant professor of neurology at the University of Colorado at Denver.
What It Is
As defined by the Mayo Clinic, multiple sclerosis is a potentially debilitating disease in which the body’s immune system eats away at the protective sheath covering the nerves. Ultimately, it can result in deterioration of the nerves themselves. It is an autoimmune disease. You can learn more at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society website.
According to Miravalle, approximately 85 percent of patients with MS have relapsing MS, where symptoms flare up and then go into remission and the other 15 percent of patients have progressive MS in which there are fewer or no remissions and the disease steadily gets worse.
While experts cannot say exactly what causes MS, they are able to state who gets the disease. MS is more frequently seen in women, white people with family origins in northern Europe, and those living in temperate places as the incidence of MS appears to increase with latitude. People tend to be diagnosed between ages 20 to 40. Researchers believe there is a genetic risk factor, however, identical twins do not have a 100 percent chance of both getting MS, so there have to be other factors as well.
One of the latest developments in the study of MS is the link to vitamin D deficiency as a possible risk factor. “The relationship shows that vitamin D deficiency might cause people to develop MS,” Miravalle said. Because there is a risk of toxicity, people should consult their own doctor to determine their vitamin D levels and how much of a dose they need to supplement their diet or exposure to the vitamin.
While there is no cure for MS, Miravalle said there is hope to someday be able to reverse MS or stop it from progressing, if patients are diagnosed and treated early enough. This could be done with stem cells, intravenous antibodies, or other therapies still being tested.
For now, he said, MS patients should get MRI testing. “MRI is one of the strongest tools we have,” he said. “It helps us in trying to predict the course of the disease as 90 percent of what happens in the brain is asymptomatic.” MS causes lesions in the brain that can be viewed on an MRI scan.
Like other experts, Miravalle said a diet rich in vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and to quit smoking can help people with MS—and possibly prevent it. “Aerobic exercise makes MS better, and a healthy diet makes MS better,” he said.
New medications for MS are being developed and tested. The Rocky Mountain MS Center has detailed information in their newsletter about drugs and treatments. Miravalle said that side effects from some new treatments can include death and heart problems, so investigations are on-going before these become widely used.