On Your Health

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March is Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month

Former "Sopranos" star Jamie-Lynn Sigler made headlines last month when she revealed that she has had multiple sclerosis for the past 15 years. Other well-known people with the disease include Annette Funicello, Richard Pryor, Montel Williams, Terri Garr, Jack Osbourne and Ann Romney.

Although you might be aware of this unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system, there is probably a lot you don't know. It's March, which means it's Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month. Why not read on to learn more?

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

MS is a progressive central nervous system disease, in which the immune system attacks its own nerve cells, slowing down messages between the brain and the rest of the body.

No one is sure what causes MS, but the symptoms, which are different for each person, can flare up and then subside over the course of days, months and even years, and can range from mild to severe.

These symptoms typically include muscle weakness, numbness, painful spasms, rigidity, coordination problems, fatigue, vertigo, memory problems and a tingling or electric-shock sensation. These symptoms usually start between the ages of 20 and 40, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Patients are often plagued by anxiety, fatigue and depression.

Approximately 400,000 people in the United States live with MS. Women are more than twice as likely to develop the disease as men. According to Dr. Farhat Husain, a neurologist at the INTEGRIS Neuroscience Institute who specializes in the treatment of the disease, that ratio is increasing. No one knows why more women than men get MS, "but there are theories about hormonal influences," says Dr. Husain.

Doctors don't know the cause of MS, but possibilities include:

  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Infectious agents, such as viruses
  • Environmental factors
  • Genetic factors

Although MS is most frequently diagnosed in younger adults, individuals of any age may be diagnosed with this neurological condition.

There is no single test to diagnosis someone who has MS. Doctors use a medical history, physical exam, neurological exam, MRI and other tests to diagnose it.

Approximately 50 percent of all people with MS experience cognitive impairments related to their disease. The effects of these impairments may be mild or severe and may include difficulty with concentration, attention, memory and poor judgment.  For this reason, both early detection and early treatment are very important, in order "to lessen the burden on the brain," says Dr. Husain.

There is no cure yet for MS. However, there are strategies to modify the disease course, treat and lessen flare ups, manage symptoms and improve function and mobility. Most importantly, today's treatments can significantly slow down the progression of the disease. These treatments include medication and physical and occupational therapy.

"If there was a diagnosis of MS 25 years ago it was extremely significant and often meant a wheelchair and possible early death," says Dr. Husain, but thanks to today's approved treatments and wellness strategies, most people with MS are able to live a full and productive life, with much hope for the future, she says.

Dr. Husain recommends lifestyle habits that can help manage some of the symptoms of MS. "Exercise and what is referred to as 'mindfulness training,' or paying attention to your emotional wellness, can help people live well with MS," she says.

These tips include:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Exercise. If you have mild to moderate MS, exercise can help improve your balance, coordination and strength. Doctors recommend walking, stretching, low-impact aerobics, stationary bicycling, yoga and tai chi.
  • Cool down. MS symptoms often worsen when your body temperature rises.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Some early findings in studies show that a diet low in saturated fat but high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in olive and fish oils, may help, although more research is needed. Studies also suggest that vitamin D may have potential benefit for people with MS.
  • Relieve stress. Stress may trigger or worsen your signs and symptoms. Yoga, tai chi, massage, meditation or deep breathing may help.

If you are living with MS, this week National Multiple Sclerosis Society asks you to share your solutions to overcoming the challenges of MS – in video, pictures, or words – to find strength and inspiration through collective experiences. Be sure to use the hashtag ‪#‎WeAreStrongerThanMS‬ when you share on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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