Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month

Often misunderstood, multiple sclerosis (MS) affects nearly 1 million Americans. According to the Multiple Sclerosis Journal, that number is on the rise, with more men and women across the globe being diagnosed with MS than ever before. This March, take advantage of Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month to learn the basics about MS.  

“MS is the neurological disease with the highest level of disability in young people,” says Ulrike Kaunzner, M.D., PhD, board-certified psychiatrist and neurologist with the Judith Jaffe Multiple Sclerosis Center of Weill Cornell Medicine. Fortunately, Dr. Kaunzner says, “There have been many changes over the past 10 years. We [now] have a much wider range of treatment options.”  

To access these treatment options, you need a diagnosis. Before even speaking with your provider, it can help to better understand the disease and learn to recognize the symptoms. 

MS Defined and Experienced 

MS affects your body’s nervous system. Specifically, it damages the insulation surrounding nerve fibers. Known as myelin, this insulation ensures strong, steady signals pass from your brain to your different body parts. Damage to myelin impacts your brain, spinal cord or optic nerves, causing a variety of troubling symptoms. 

Such symptoms include: 

  • Balance issues or atypical clumsiness 
  • Blurred or double vision or vision loss that comes on quickly 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Dizzy spells that come occasionally or regularly 
  • Fatigue (mental or physical) 
  • Hand or leg weakness 
  • Loss of bladder control 
  • Memory, judgment or learning problems 
  • Muscle spasms and stiffness

Common Types of MS 

The three most common types of MS are: 

  • Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS). According to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America, up to 85% of MS cases either are or begin as RRMS. An MS relapse occurs when you experience new or worsening symptoms. With RRMS, the symptoms last a few days or a few months. Afterward, you can go months or years without symptoms.  
  • Secondary-progressive MS (SPMS). This happens when RRMS progresses. Instead of sporadic flare-ups, SPMS causes slowly worsening MS. Thanks to new medications, more people can keep RRMS from progressing to SPMS. 
  • Primary-progressive MS (PPMS). Unlike SPMS, PPMS isn’t the result of a slow progression of disease. Rather, PPMS skips past RRMS and causes a steady worsening of symptoms from the very start.  

Underneath Multiple Sclerosis 

Currently, it’s unclear what causes MS. Genetics do play a role in the condition, but that’s not the only factor that determines whether you will get MS. 

“MS is a complex disease involving both genetics and environment,” says Timothy Vartanian, M.D., PhD, director of the Judith Jaffe Multiple Sclerosis Center. “If one twin has MS, there’s only a one in three chance that the other twin will have MS. That tells us that genetics are important, but that environment is critical to whether you get MS or don’t.” 

Environmental factors include more than where you live. They also cover lifestyle choices. Environmental risk factors for MS include: 

  • Childhood obesity (especially for females) 
  • Living far from the Earth’s equator 
  • Not getting enough vitamin D (possibly linked to living farther from the equator) 
  • Smoking 

Another cause of MS may be your own body. Many consider MS an autoimmune disease. With autoimmune diseases, the immune system, instead of fighting off real threats, attacks healthy organs and tissue. In MS, the immune system attacks the brain or spinal cord. It can also go after the optic nerves, which are the nerves that help you see. 

The Four Pillars of MS Care 

Currently, a growing number of treatments are available to treat MS. However, none of them repair MS-related nerve damage. They reduce the risk of future damage. Therefore, to prevent permanent nerve damage, begin MS treatment as soon as possible. 

That is easier said than done. MS symptoms mimic many other conditions, and there’s no MS test. When your provider suspects MS, a multidisciplinary team works to rule out other potential diseases. Doing this requires a comprehensive medical history, MRI, spinal tap, blood tests and other tests. 

Once diagnosed, slowing the progression of your disease requires relying on four pillars. These are: 

  • Nutrition. Go with home-cooked meals and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Maintain maximum control over your MS by avoiding processed foods and refined grains. 
  • Exercise. One symptom of MS is that your body can’t tolerate heat. Despite this restriction, you can still work out. Just do it in the pool or in a comfortably cool gym. Moderate-intensity exercise provides big benefits when living with MS. 
  • Mental well-being. Living with MS can cause anxiety, anger, stress and other mental health issues. Relaxation techniques, funny movies, counseling and other treatments can help maintain good mental health. 
  • Medication. Depending on your specific case, you may need injections, infusions or oral medication. 

Digging in Deeper  

Nearly three times as many women experience MS. It’s unclear why, but something environmental is suspected. 

Additionally, severe MS may be more common among those with African and possibly Latin ancestry. This, too, is a mystery. However, Kiel Telesford, PhD, M.Sc., neuroscience instructor in the Brain and Mind Research Institute at Weill Cornell Medical College, found part of the answer. Dr. Telesford’s research discovered a possible connection to the frequency of antibody-producing cells within the blood of those whose ancestors hail from African or Latin countries.  

As research grows our understanding of MS, Weill Cornell Medicine specialists take every step possible to help you live a full life with the disease. An important way we do this is through our multidisciplinary approach. After all, MS doesn’t affect one body part. It often affects many. So, our neurologists work closely with urologists, therapists, physiatrists, eye specialists and more.  

The most important member of this impressive team is you. 

“[MS management] is a joint venture,” says Jai S. Perumal, M.D., attending neurologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medicine. “We work together with the patient to ensure the patient’s long-term health and care. [Communication] makes a better doctor and a better patient as well.” 

Work with our specialists at the Judith Jaffe Multiple Sclerosis Center, where we treat not only MS, but other disorders of the central nervous system. Request an appointment today.

Need a provider to help you take the first steps to manage your MS? Find a provider at Weill Cornell Medicine who can help.