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Multiple sclerosis

There are around 100,000 people in the UK currently suffering from Multiple sclerosis, otherwise known as MS, a devastating and incurable neurological condition.

Women are three times more likely to be diagnosed with the condition which is usually diagnosed when the patient is in their 20s and 30s.

MS damages the central nervous system by attacking the myelin sheaths around the nerves in your brain and spinal cord so the nerve can't send signals properly.

Areas where the myelin has been damaged become scarred and hardened - sclerosis means hardening.

Symptons

The symptoms for MS are:

  • blurred or double vision;
  • fatigue;
  • muscle weakness, stiffness and spasms; 
  • incontinence;
  • loss of balance, coordination and dizziness;
  • pain;
  • numbness or tingling of your skin;
  • difficulty speaking and swallowing;
  • feeling emotional, anxious or depressed;
  • impotence.

Different types of MS

There are four types of MS.

Benign MS
When there are long times of remission (no symptoms). However, you need to have had few or no symptoms for about 15 years before this diagnosis can be made.

You may have a relapse after many years of not having any and it's possible that benign MS will get worse later in life.

Relapsing-remitting MS
For about 80 percent of people with MS, it begins as a relapsing and remitting condition. This means relapses followed by periods of remission.

Relapses can come on suddenly and last for between two and six weeks, although some may take a few months to clear.

The symptoms may get gradually worse with each one or new symptoms appear.

Secondary progressive MS
About half of all people who have relapsing-remitting MS go on to develop secondary progressive MS within 10 years.

Your symptoms don't get better once the relapse is over and slowly build up. You are likely to become gradually more disabled even though relapses and remissions may occur less frequently.

Primary progressive MS
If you have this type, your symptoms get steadily more severe without any periods of remission.

Treatment

There are treatments that can help manage the symptoms of MS, although there is no cure.

Regular exercise can be helpful in reducing fatigue and improving mobility. Physiotherapy can increase muscle strength and balance.

No special diets have been shown to improve MS, but aim to eat a healthy, balanced diet including lots fresh fruit and vegetables.  Limit your intake of saturated fats and sugary foods.

If your symptoms are severe, your GP may prescribe you a short course of steroids, often methylprednisolone (eg Depo-Medrone).

These reduce inflammation and help to shorten your relapses. Steroids don't have any effect on the long-term progression of MS.

Disease-modifying drugs may slow down the progression of the disease and help to reduce the frequency or severity of attacks. Those licensed for use in the UK are interferon beta-1a (Avonex or Rebif), interferon beta-1b (Betaferon), natalizumab (Tysabri) and glatiramer acetate (Copaxone) injections.

Different types of medicines can be used to treat the various symptoms of MS such as pain, incontinence and impotence.

The Medical Research Council funded a study in the UK into the effects of cannabis on some MS symptons. Participants reported an improvement in spasticity and sleep quality, as well as reduced pain.

There is a medicine called Sativex that contains an extract of cannabis. This isn't licensed in the UK but your GP may legally prescribe it on a named patient basis if he or she thinks it will help your symptoms more than conventional treatments.

It is not known what causes MS.

MS Society

The MS Society offers support and advice to MS sufferers and their loved ones.

It is also investing large amounts of money into researching possible cures and more effective treatments. It depends heavily on legacies to fund its work. The MS Society call these 'Tribute Funds'.

For more information, visit the MS Society website.

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