Claudia Chaves, MD, is board-certified in cerebrovascular disease and neurology with a subspecialty certification in vascular neurology.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks and destroys the protective covering of nerve cells (myelin) of the brain, spinal cord, and/or eyes. This impairs nerve signaling and causes a wide variety of potential symptoms, such as muscle weakness, pain, and problems with thinking and memory. The precise cause of MS is unknown.
Multiple sclerosis symptoms are caused by your immune system mistakenly destroying the myelin sheath on the nerves, which impairs their function. Researchers are still trying to determine what leads to the autoimmune reaction, but sound theories include infectious disease, vitamin D levels, and a combination of genetics and environmental factors.
Experts suspect that certain genetic combinations increase your risk of developing multiple sclerosis. They’ve identified several genes that appear to be linked to the disease. If you have a parent or sibling who has it, you’re more likely to develop it. However, it’s far from guaranteed—a parent raises your risk from 0.13 to 2% and a sibling raises it to 5%.
Multiple sclerosis is rarely fatal. Some people with this disease may have a lifespan that’s slightly shorter than average, but it’s increased over time due to better treatments. Most people with multiple sclerosis live long lives and die of unrelated causes, like heart disease or cancer.
Multiple sclerosis is diagnosed using a variety of tests, including:
Diagnosing this disease can be difficult. Symptoms can be subtle and many are shared by other medical conditions.
In demyelinating disease, the myelin sheaths that protect your nerves are damaged or destroyed. It can affect the nervous system, causing weakness, numbness, slurred speech, vision changes, cognitive dysfunction, and much more. Demyelinating diseases include multiple sclerosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, and progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PLM).
Encephalomyelitis means inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. Encephalo means brain, myel means spinal cord, and itis means inflammation. It’s a characteristic of certain neurological diseases, such as acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM) and paraneoplastic encephalomyelitis.
An evoked potential test measures the time it takes for a signal to travel from a nerve to the brain. It also measures the strength of the signal. Slow signals can indicate nerve damage, such as that of multiple sclerosis. However, this test is becoming less common for diagnosing MS because MRI is usually preferred.
An immune disorder is a condition involving improper function of the immune system, which is designed to protect you from illness. Some people are born with a deficient immune system. others have theirs weakened by disease. An overactive immune system causes allergies. When your immune system attacks a part of your body, it’s called autoimmunity. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease.
The myelin sheath is a protective coating on your nerve fibers that enables electrical impulses to travel rapidly from one nerve to another. In multiple sclerosis and other demyelinating diseases, the sheath is damaged or destroyed, which interrupts, or even stops, these signals and causes a wide array of symptoms.
The most common form of multiple sclerosis, relapsing-remitting MS involves times when symptoms are highly active (relapsing) and times when they aren’t (remitting). Remission can include less severe symptoms or no symptoms at all.
Also called lumbar puncture, a spinal tap is a procedure that involves inserting a needle between the vertebrae. It’s most often performed to remove cerebrospinal fluid from your spine so it can be examined for signs of disease, such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, or meningitis. It’s also used to lower pressure in your brain, deliver anesthesia, and inject medication, dye, or antibiotics.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Disorders of the Immune System.
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