Your nervous system is connected to everything. Whether you are thinking about it or not, every step, every swallow, every unconscious internal function is run by a sophisticated network of organic wires and computers. Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease affecting the supercomputer that is your nervous system. To help understand the nuanced symptoms associated with MS, we spoke with Nida Laurin, MD, a MS specialist.
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“The early signs of multiple sclerosis can be hard to identify,” said Dr. Laurin. “I often tell my patients that they know their body well enough to know when something is wrong.” Pay attention to how you feel and take notes to track progress. Dr. Laurin also commented that “your mind is a powerful thing. Even as MS begins to affect your nervous system, your brain will find ways to work around the damage. You may see symptoms come and go, which can be confusing.” Carefully monitoring unusual symptoms will help to paint a clear picture of your body’s overall health.
Because the symptoms of MS can be unpredictable and intermittent, patients often put off doctor visits for months or even years. Dr. Laurin warned strongly against procrastinating and offered a short list of symptoms that could indicate MS:
- Blurred or double vision
- Pricking or “pins and needles” sensations
- Weakness and fatigue
Dr. Laurin emphasized that the development of these symptoms varies from one individual to another. Some symptoms considered to be “early indications” of MS may not appear until much later. Other symptoms, often perceived as advanced, could show up much earlier than expected.
Early detection and cognitive symptoms
Your ability to solve problems, remember details, learn new things and concentrate are indications of good cognitive health. While there are many symptoms associated with MS, weakening cognitive abilities have long been a symptom associated with advanced cases. However, Dr. Laurin explained that cognitive impairment can, in fact, be an early indicator of MS, though the symptoms may often be overlooked.
A recent study showed the importance of cognitive health in assessing multiple sclerosis. The study used cognitive scores collected from exams of Norwegian men age 18 to 19. Men who developed first clinical MS symptoms up to 2 years after the examination scored significantly lower in cognitive tests than the controls. Experts interpreted this information to show cognitive deficiencies can begin years before MS's first clear clinical symptoms are seen.
Living with multiple sclerosis
People with MS suffer from inflammation, leading to lesions in the brain, spinal cord and throughout the nervous system. For this reason, disease-modifying oral medications, injections and infusions are a mainstay of treatment. Multiple sclerosis has no known cure, however Dr. Laurin emphasized that quality of life can be enhanced with the help of trained professionals and the support of loved ones.
“Slowing the progression of the disease is just one (very important) part of treatment, especially for neurologists like me. However, the symptoms of living with MS require a different approach,” said Dr. Laurin. “Treating the symptoms will help the person maintain physical, mental and emotional abilities for longer and with greater comfort.”
Dr. Laurin went on to list a few examples of how we can improve quality of life for loved ones with MS, despite having no known cure. “Physical therapists will work to improve balance, strength and muscle function. Psychiatrists and therapists will provide emotional support for people with MS, for whom depression is a common symptom. Eye care professionals will help maintain vision. All the while, friends and loved ones at home can help to fill the gaps in daily life.
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“Living with MS or helping a loved one who has MS can feel intimidating,” said Dr. Laurin. “But we are stronger when we work together. You can find consolation in knowing that we care about you and will do everything we can to make you feel comfortable and at peace, regardless of the severity of your symptoms.” If you or someone you know is dealing with any of the symptoms listed above, set up an appointment with your doctor to learn more.