Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment of MS

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, sometimes causing severe disabilities to the central nervous system. When people have MS, their immune systems attack the protective sheaths that cover the nerve fibers. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society explains that this can cause nerve impulses that travel to and from the brain and spinal cord to be distorted or interrupted. 
When these impulses are distorted, or blocked, even temporarily, this causes a wide variety of symptoms. These signs and symptoms vary widely depending on the amount of nerve damage and which nerves are affected, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some people have long periods of remission without any symptoms, while others lose their ability to walk. There is no cure for this potentially debilitating disease, but there are ways to manage it. 
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Who's at risk for MS?
According to the Mayo Clinic, the real source of MS is unknown. Doctors consider it an autoimmune disease because it attacks the body's own tissues, but it's unclear why MS develops. Researchers suspect that MS is caused by a combination of both genetics and environmental factors. Here are some risk factors doctors are aware of:
Age. MS usually strikes between the ages of 15 and 60, but it can occur at any age.
Sex. Women have about twice as much chance as men to develop MS.
Family history. A parent or sibling with MS gives you a higher risk of developing the disease.
Certain infections. Development of MS is linked to a variety of viruses, including Epstein-Barr, which causes infectious mononucleosis.
Race. White people are at highest risk of developing MS, particularly those of Northern European descent. People of Asian, African or Native American descent have the lowest risk.
Climate. Areas with temperate climates, such as Canada, the northern United States, New Zealand, southeastern Australia and Europe, see a higher percentage of MS in their populations.
Certain autoimmune diseases. Thyroid disease, type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease give you a slightly higher risk of developing MS.
Smoking. Smokers who have an initial event of symptoms that might indicate MS are more likely than nonsmokers to have another event that confirms MS.
Signs & Symptoms
Symptoms of MS vary from person to person, depending on how and where the disease is affecting the central nervous system. But some typical symptoms to be aware of include:
- Numbness or weakness in your limbs, typically on one side of your body at a time, or in your legs and trunk
- Partial or complete loss of sight, usually in one eye at a time, often painful when you move the eye
- Prolonged double vision
- Tingling or feelings of pain in areas of your body
- Sensations of electric shock when you move your neck, especially bending your neck forward 
- Tremor, walking unsteadily or lack of coordination 
- Slurred speech
- Fatigue
- Dizziness
- Bowel and bladder dysfunction
MS is often a relapse-remitting disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. That means a patient may experience periods of new or old symptoms that develop over days, or even weeks. These symptoms usually improve -- sometimes totally disappearing -- but often return after periods of months, or even years.
Treating MS
MS can't be cured, but it can be managed. WebMD explains that there is a wide variety of drugs available to help MS patients manage their symptoms, avoid relapses and live a more comfortable life. These drugs work to suppress or alter the body's immune system in hope of stopping MS from attacking the nerve fibers. WebMD explains that these drugs vary, and each has side effects that must be taken into consideration. The site has compiled a list of the most common drugs and their side effects here. 
Under the observation of a health professional, the Mayo Clinic says MS patients might also be helped by:
- Physical therapy
- Muscle relaxants
- Other medications that treat the depression, pain, sexual dysfunction and bladder or bowel control problems that are associated with MS
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Resources and Support
MS can be a debilitating disease, so it's not only important to be educated about it but also to have a support system that can help you manage it. The National MS Society has a great page filled with tools and resources that can help you learn to live with the disease, find a community and even manage your finances while trying to control your MS. 
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