Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a disease in which the body's immune system attacks the protective myelin sheath that covers the nerves. This causes a disruption or stoppage of the signals the brain sends to the rest of the body. The disease is chronic and incurable, but sufferers can have a normal life expectancy and continue to function for many years after diagnosis.
The disease presents itself in different ways. In some, there is a sudden attack, generally lasting from one day to four weeks. When this occurs, the person experiences a sudden drop in physical abilities. This is known as exacerbation of multiple sclerosis. 65%-80% present with the most common type, relapsing-remitting MS. In this type, periods of attacks alternate with periods of partial or complete remission. The time between attacks can be days or even decades. With primary-progressive MS, which occurs in about 10-20% of sufferers, the decline in a person's physical abilities is slow and gradual. Those with this type of MS experience fewer relapses, but become more disabled with each one.
Multiple sclerosis may go undiagnosed for many years due to the broad range of symptoms and its tendency to progress slowly and subtly. A definitive diagnosis is made through a group of tests: Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), spinal tap, where the spinal fluid is examined, and an electro-physiological test that analyzes the impulses traveling through the nerves.
There are some medications available known to slow the progression of the disease by suppressing the body's immune system, slowing the body's attack on the myelin that surrounds the nerves. They do not cure MS, but can diminish the severity and frequency of attacks and development of new brain lesions. Doctors recommend that this drug therapy begin immediately once a diagnosis is confirmed. MS sufferers can take an active role in managing their disease by getting adequate rest, exercising, eating a balanced diet, staying cool, and managing stress.