More than 100,000 people in the UK have multiple sclerosis, yet few of those who are lucky enough not to have it are aware of the truths about the debilitating illness.
To mark Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week (April 25-May 1), here are 10 things you should know about this surprisingly common neurological condition:
1. It’s a lifelong condition
The MS Trust explains multiple sclerosis (MS) is a lifelong condition affecting the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), but it’s not terminal, contagious or inherited, although family members do have a slightly higher risk of getting it.
2. There are lots of symptoms
Nobody will have exactly the same range and severity of MS symptoms – they can vary greatly in their impact, and some people may have lengthy relapses.
The first signs of MS will correspond to the affected area(s) of the brain and/or spinal cord, and may include fatigue, stumbling, pins and needles or numbness, slowed thinking and sight problems.
As the disease progresses, more symptoms can develop, including dizziness, poor balance, bowel problems, stiffness, speech difficulties, tremors and emotional and memory problems.
3. The cause remains a mystery
It’s thought to be an auto-immune disease, where the immune system attacks myelin, the fatty protein that covers nerves in the central nervous system.
Why this happens is unknown, but it’s thought that genes may lead to MS being triggered by an environmental factor, possibly an infection.
4. It is usually diagnosed in your 20s and 30s
It can still occur in both younger and older people though. They will, on average, live with the condition for 40 to 50 years, typically until their mid-70s…
5. Weaker immune system
People very severely affected by MS may get more infections, or develop additional health conditions more easily than others and they may die from these.
6. There are four types
Relapsing remitting (RRMS) is where people have distinct attacks which then fade away, either partially or completely. Around 85% of people with MS have this type.
Secondary progressive (SPMS) features a sustained build-up of disability, completely independent of relapses. Many people with RRMS go on to have SPMS
Primary progressive (PPMS) affects 10-15% of people diagnosed with MS. Symptoms gradually get worse over time.
Benign MS is a version of RRMS with very mild attacks separated by long periods with no symptoms.
7. More common in women
Around two to three women have MS for every man that has it.
8. There’s no cure
The majority of treatments involve managing specific symptoms.
People who relapse may be given corticosteroids, which can help speed up recovery.
Disease modifying drugs may be given to people with RRMS, to reduce the number of relapses and their severity.
9. It’s more common in countries further north or south of the Equator
The fact that MS is most prevalent in northern Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand has prompted theories that it’s been carried around the world by European colonists and settlers.
10. It’s not necessarily disabling
Most people with MS will never need to use a wheelchair regularly.