More individuals are being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis today than in the past, though the reason for the increase remains unclear, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS).
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to treat the brain and spinal cord as foreign objects. As a result, the immune system attacks and damages the protective sheath that covers the body’s nerve cells. This damage slows down or blocks messages between the brain and the rest of the body causing symptoms such as vision disturbances, imbalance, muscle weakness and numbness, says the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The disease affects up to 2.3 million people worldwide, and researchers and neurologists agree that the incidence of MS are on the rise. Conclusive studies have yet to identify the cause of the increase, but those in the field say environmental factors, increased awareness and better diagnostic tools may be at play.
Tracy Eicher, MD, a neurologist with the Clinical Neuroscience Institute who specializes in MS, says lifestyle changes may also have a significant effect on the body’s immune system.
“Our modern-day living is confusing our immune systems,” says Dr. Eicher, who practices with Premier Health Specialists. “Neuroscientists now theorize that such things as overuse of antibacterial agents and antibiotics is altering our immune systems, leaving them less robust. At the same time increased exposure to preservatives, high sodium diets and a multitude of unnatural, manufactured chemicals is confusing to immune systems. Our immune systems no longer know what to fight.”
MS is not contagious or inherited, but scientists have found patterns to the disease that might help point to whom it might affect. Researchers say gender, genetics, age, geography and ethnic background have been identified as factors and will hopefully hold the key to discovering how the disease develops in one person over another, the NMSS says.
MS is often a difficult disease to diagnose because its symptoms can vary from person to person depending on what area of the brain or spinal cord it attacks. Many times, patients are referred to Dr. Eicher because they have several unexplained symptoms.
“A patient might have visual loss in one eye or change of color vision out of one eye if it is attacking the optic nerve,” she says. “Or you may have any symptom that has to do with what the brain does for you, which is nearly everything.”
The peak age of diagnosis for MS is when someone is in their 20s or 30s. The disease is diagnosed through a clinical exam of a patient and their history, but is ultimately confirmed when imaging of the brain reveals lesions, or areas of attack, and damage on the central nervous system. There are times when a person’s MS may be unexpectedly diagnosed when their central nervous system is being imaged for a totally different reason, Dr. Eicher says.
Recent research and the release of highly effective drugs are making MS one of the most exciting areas in the field of neurology. Patients are now able to maintain a quality of life that was unheard of in previous decades, Dr. Eicher says.
“There are people walking around with MS and you wouldn’t even know it,” she says. “Like the principal at your child’s school or the guy who talks to you and helps you with your account at the bank. There are people who have the disease, but its presence is not as obvious.”
The key, however, is early diagnosis and patient compliance. Dr. Eicher urges individuals to consult with their physician if they experience any unusual symptom pertaining to their nervous system that lasts for more than 24 hours at a time. This could include symptoms such as vision changes or numbness.
For more information on multiple sclerosis or to find a Premier Health Specialists physician near you, go online to www.premierhealthspecialists.org/neuro.
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