Multiple Sclerosis is a neurological, lifelong medical condition which can affect parts of the brain and/or spinal cord. According to the NHS, it is estimated that there are more than 100,000 people diagnosed with the condition here in the UK.
Although commonly diagnosed in people in their 20s and 30s, it can develop at any stage of life. Women are also around two to three times as likely to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
You may have seen our in-depth guide to the medical conditions which affect older people. Here we will focus on Multiple Sclerosis. We will look at the causes, symptoms, treatments, and how you can live with the condition.
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple Sclerosis is a neurological condition that can effect many parts of the human body, including your brain and spinal cord. It is a lifelong condition that can cause serious disability issues to those affected.
The MS Society define the condition in the following way:
"In MS, your immune system, which normally helps to fight off infections, mistakes myelin for a foreign body and attacks it. This damages the myelin and strips it off the nerve fibres, either slightly or completely, leaving scars known as lesions or plaques. This damage disrupts messages travelling along nerve fibres – they can slow down, become distorted, or not get through at all."
There are two types of MS:
- Relapsing-remitting MS - Affects more than eight out of 10 people diagnosed with the condition. Somebody with this type of the condition will have episodes of new or worsening symptoms, known as relapses. These symptoms typically worsen over a few days, last for days to weeks to months, then slowly improve over a similar time period.
- Primary progressive MS - Affects just over one in every 10 people with the condition. Symptoms gradually worsen and accumulate over several years, with no periods of remission. However, people often have periods where their condition appears to stabilise.
The MS Society estimate that each year 5000 more people are diagnosed with the condition. In fact, they go on to say that around one in every 600 people has MS - that's approximately 14 people every day. Such is the severity of the condition, the average life expectancy drops slightly in those people diagnosed with MS.
The actual cause behind Multiple Sclerosis is not too clear. However, it is said that the condition is triggered once something goes wrong with your immune system. This causes it to attack healthy parts of your body.
With MS, the immune system attacks the layer that surrounds and protects your central nervous system. This is medically known as the myelin sheath. The sheath then becomes damaged and scarred. As a result, messages that travel along the nervous system become disrupted and slow. Experts believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors are involved in the trigger of this behaviour.
The condition cannot be inherited from parent to child and there is no single gene that can cause it. The condition can appear more than once in a family but there is only a 1.5% chance of a child developing multiple sclerosis when either of their parents have it (one in 67). There is also only a 2.7% chance you get the condition if your brother or sister has it (one in 37).
Environmentally, it has been found that multiple sclerosis is less common in tropical countries near the equator, all of which get plenty of sunshine. It is more common in countries further away from the equator, like the UK. It is also common in regions such as North America, Scandinavia, South Australia, and New Zealand.
There is evidence to suggest that the following can also increase the risk of multiple sclerosis:
- Viruses and bacteria.
- Low levels of vitamin D, especially before you become an adult.
- Smoking, due to the chemicals affecting your immune system.
- Obesity, due to the weight causing your immune system to become overactive.
The attack on your nervous system can cause a number of different symptoms that can vary from person to person. Symptoms can include:
- Blurred vision.
- Muscle stiffness.
- Balance problems.
- Walking difficulty.
- Numbness / Tingling in parts of the body.
- Problems with thinking, learning, and planning.
- Bladder control issues.
One of the most common and troublesome symptoms of multiple sclerosis is fatigue. Those with the condition often describe the feeling as being an "overwhelming sense of exhaustion that means it's a struggle to carry out even the simplest activities."
Vision loss can occur in around one in four cases. The first sign of this issue is when you have a problem with one of your eyes. You may experience a temporary loss of vision, colour blindness, eye pain, and flashes of light when you move your eye.
The type of symptoms you have, along with the severity and duration can depend on the type of MS that you have. Those with primary progressive MS will see their symptoms gradually worsen and accumulate over many years.
Those with relapsing-remitting MS will have episodes of new or worsening symptoms which can last from weeks to months before slowly improving over a similar time period.
Due to the number of symptoms which can be linked to the condition, diagnosing multiple sclerosis is a difficult task for your doctor. In some cases, diagnosis can take several months due to the early signs and symptoms differing for everybody.
If you believe that you have symptoms which relate to the condition, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. You will need to talk to your doctor about your symptoms in plenty of detail. This is so that he or she has as much knowledge about your case as possible.
No single test can diagnose the condition and it may not be possible to confirm diagnosis if you've only had one "attack" of MS-like symptoms. Diagnosis can only be made with confidence once there's evidence of at least two separate attacks. However, this may include signs of attacks on an MRI scan that you may not realise you have had.
Currently there is no cure for Multiple Sclerosis. There are, though, a number of treatments out there which can help to control the condition. The treatments available will depend on the specific symptoms of your condition and can include:
- Steroid medication to treat relapses.
- Disease-modifying therapies to reduce the number of relapses.
- Specific treatment for individual MS symptoms.
It is possible for the disease-modifying therapies to also help slow or reduce the overall worsening of disability of MS in people with relapsing-remitting MS.
According to the MS Society, there are also many lifestyle changes that can be made to help improve some of your symptoms. This includes taking part in regular exercise, including aerobic, strengthening, stretching, and posture exercises.
Physiotherapy can also be useful to help improve your movement and other functions of your body. Furthermore, a nutritionally-based diet also allows your body to work to its full potential.
Living with MS
Although you will need to adapt your everyday life, it is possible for people with the condition to live long, active lives. Once diagnosed, it is important that you have a comprehensive review of the care you're receiving with your Response Team. This will allow you to talk about your treatments, any problems you're having, and any further support that you may need.
Having a healthy lifestyle is also very important. There are no specific diets that have been proven to slow the progression of the condition. However, a general healthy, balanced diet can help to manage any fatigue or constipation issues. The MS Society advise that you try to include the following in your diet:
- Carbohydrates and sugars.
- Vitamins and minerals.
Alongside a healthy diet, it is also important that you try to get as much exercise as is physically possible. Exercise can help to manage some of your symptoms, such as fatigue, balance, and walking issues. It will also help to improve your general mood, your overall health, and for you to remain as mobile and active as possible once your MS becomes more severe.
Remember that if you are about to take part in some form of exercise to start off slow and to not push yourself too hard too soon. It's also important to keep as cool as possible whilst exercising as many people with MS are sensitive to heat.
You should avoid overly hot swimming pools. Break up your sessions into smaller sections, taking breaks to drink ice drinks.
Multiple Sclerosis is a condition which will allow you to qualify for VAT Exemption when you order a personal alarm system from Lifeline24. HMRC state that a product which has been “designed or adapted for a disability” qualifies for VAT exemption.
For a person to qualify they must meet certain criteria set by HMRC. These criteria state that the customer must have a long-term illness, a terminal illness, or a disability to qualify.
Staying Safe at Home
A personal alarm can help protect people if they suffer from a long-term medical condition. If one of our alarm users feels unwell, or suffers a fall, he or she can press their pendant button and help will be arranged immediately.
For more information on purchasing one of our life-saving personal alarms, please speak to one of our friendly advisors on 0800 999 0400. Alternatively, complete our contact us form and we will get back to you as soon as possible.
Editor's Note: This article was updated on 30th March 2022 to reflect current information.