If you’re a fan of medical dramas such as House M.D. or Grey’s Anatomy, there is a good chance you’ve heard the term MS before. But what really is MS or multiple sclerosis? Let’s know more.

The word sclerosis here means scarring. MS occurs when the structure overlying the nerves (myelin) is damaged at various places. These damaged areas heal with permanent scarring. This is a continuous process that occurs rapidly in some cases and slowly in others. This is what makes MS a chronic, debilitating disease with an uncertain course.

In this case, the nerves predominantly affected are those of the central nervous system i.e. the brain and spinal cord. Ultimately, these organs control every part of the body’s functioning.

This also makes it impossible to predict what exactly the disease may manifest as in any given case.

What lies beneath?

The first question that arises in people’s minds when they are given a diagnosis is often- why me? But, like most autoimmune conditions, understanding the “why” is an ongoing process. Genetics do play a role, with the white population being more susceptible, but the exact trigger factor for the autoimmune reaction is not yet known. A lot of risk factors have been researched such as smoking, vitamin B12 deficiency, Epstein Barr Virus infections, low vitamin D levels but none have shown a proven association.

What does having MS mean?

The disease can have widely varying manifestations. Initial complaints of fatigue are often attributed to work or stress and ignored.

Later, several organ systems can be affected. This may be initially seen as a weakness in the limbs, a tingling sensation over the body, and an intermittent electric-shock-like feeling on moving the neck. There may also be intermittent spasms or sudden muscle contractions or tremors. It can affect gait, cause imbalance or even affect coordination when the cerebellum is damaged. All in all, it can affect every part of your brain – how you walk, how you talk, how you think (cognitive dysfunction), and how you feel.

The other nerve commonly affected is the optic nerve. This may begin as blurring and progress to loss of vision. It can also include decreased ability to see colors.

Other features include loss of bladder control, which means not being able to resist the urge to pass urine and often passing it without feeling anything at all. It can also cause sexual dysfunction and reduced sex drive. Constipation may occur as well.

Will it get worse?

The course of MS is variable. The most common type is one with periods of active disease followed by periods of remission. This continues cyclically, but the duration of episodes is not constant.

It is also possible to have a progressive disease, which gets more serious with time.

The bottom line is, it is a complex condition and its unpredictability only makes it seem scarier. Many patients also have depression but a deeper understanding of the disease and the appropriate awareness of how much it affects can help the patients in a better way.

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