Multiple Sclerosis: When the Body Attacks Itself

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Your immune system plays a critical role in keeping your body healthy. It is your first line of defense against infections and diseases.

The immune system is made up of different organs, tissues and white blood cells that all work tirelessly together against foreign invaders that are designed to get you sick.

A healthy immune system is important to maintain because every day we are bombarded with germs, bacteria, viruses and the like.When we come into contact with these foreign substances (antigens), our immune system is called to duty.

White blood cells produce antibodies to attack foreign cells and destroy them before they have a chance to make more antigens, resulting in sickness or disease.

When the immune system isn’t working properly, it can attack itself resulting in an autoimmune disease. You may be wondering if multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, but first, you need to know what the immune system does.

What Happens When Your Immune System Doesn’t Work?

Sometimes the immune system gets confused, and it attacks the body’s healthy cells instead of the bad ones. This creates the basis for an autoimmune disease.

According to the National Institution of Environmental Health Sciences, autoimmune diseases are becoming more common than ever. Over 23 million Americans are living with autoimmune disorders.

While it is not clear what exactly causes autoimmune disorders, it is likely due to a combination of genetics, lifestyle risks and other health factors such as weight.

Johns Hopkins Medicine notes some symptoms associated with autoimmune disorders are as follows: fatigue, joint pain, joint swelling, skin issues, abdominal issues, recurring fever and swollen glands.

Those with autoimmune disorders are more susceptible to infections and may get sick often because their bodies can’t tell the difference between the good cells and the bad ones.

What Treatment Options are Available for Autoimmune Diseases?

Managing an autoimmune disease is possible and the course of action depends on the specific disease. It is important to practice good hygiene, eat well and get exercise to help bolster your immune system.

It is also important to vaccinate yourself and children to protect those who have autoimmune deficiencies from potentially deadly diseases.

When those who are diagnosed with autoimmune diseases do get sick, infections are typically treated with antibiotics or hospitalization if serious enough. Some of the minor symptoms can be treated with over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are some other treatment options available to bolster the immune system. Some treatments used commonly for autoimmune diseases include immunoglobulin therapy, gamma interferon therapy, and growth factors. Some stem cell therapy is also used depending on the circumstances.

What are Some Examples of Autoimmune Diseases?

Rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and lupus are some of the more commonly known autoimmune diseases. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system attacks healthy tissue, causing joint pain and swelling.

It is this distinction that separates it from osteoarthritis where normal wear and tear is the cause of joint pain. This disease can be managed with medications and therapy.

Psoriasis is a disease in which T cells (special types of white blood cells) are thought to be responsible for attacking healthy skin cells.

This causes the skin to form scaly, red, rough patches. While not life-threatening, it can be unsightly and painful. Psoriasis is typically treated with topical treatments and other medication.

Lupus is characterized by the immune system attacking organs and tissue causing inflammation. One of the signature signs of lupus is a rash that manifests across the face in the shape of a butterfly. Lupus is treated with medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids.

Is MS an Autoimmune Disease?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system.

The central nervous system is responsible for facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body via the spinal cord. Watch this video for a brief explanation and visual aid of how MS affects the body.

Myelin is a substance that surrounds nerves and helps transmit signals. In patients who are diagnosed with MS, the immune system attacks the myelin sheath surrounding the nerve cells and this slows down the signals sent throughout the body. When myelin is damaged it scars and this is known as sclerosis, hence multiple sclerosis.

According to Medline Plus, the most common age of diagnosis for MS is around 20 – 40 years of age but it can be diagnosed at any time.

It should be noted that like most diseases, MS can manifest differently in each individual. The severity of MS also varies from person to person.

Are There Different Forms of MS?

There are four different types of MS, per the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Clinically Isolated Syndrome (CIS) is the first episode of MS that is characterized by inflammation of the myelin sheath causing neurological symptoms that last at least 24 hours. This usually is a one-time occurrence (isolated), and may or may not turn into MS.

Relapsing-Remitting MS (RRMS) is the most-diagnosed form of MS. Those who have RRMS will have relapses followed by remissions.

Relapses are characterized by new or existing symptoms acting up, and remissions are characterized by the disappearance or lessening of symptoms.

Patients with Primary Progressive MS (PPMS) experience increasingly worsening neurological symptoms and disability without periods of remission.

Patients who have RRMS will often develop Secondary Progressive MS (SPMS) where eventually neurological function begins to gradually decline following bouts of remission.

What Causes MS?

It is not known exactly what causes MS, but research has shown that a combination of factors may be responsible. MS may have a genetic component in that those who have parents or a sibling with MS have a higher risk of developing it themselves.

Scientists are exploring environmental factors that may contribute to the development of MS. Some studies have shown, per the National MS Society that the further from the equator you are, the higher the risk of developing MS.

Smoking is also associated with a higher risk of developing MS. Researchers are hard at work trying to identify the immunological factors that cause MS as well.

What are the Symptoms of MS?

Everyone afflicted with MS will show symptoms differently, but a number of common symptoms have been associated with MS. Fatigue and weakness are two of the more common symptoms.

These symptoms can be severe enough to significantly impact the ability of those who are diagnosed to work or go about daily life as normal.

Numbness, or tingling, is one of the hallmark symptoms of MS. Individuals may feel tingling in their arms, legs or face.

Additionally, many MS patients report feelings of stiffness or muscle spasms, particularly in their legs. Blurred vision, dizziness, vertigo and general pain are also associated with MS.

Not all symptoms are physical and MS is associated with a host of mental symptoms as well. Depression, anxiety, sexual issues, cognitive changes, speech issues, mood swings and irritability have all been noted in patients with MS.

Just having one or two of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have MS. It is important to consult with a doctor if you suspect you may be afflicted with several of these symptoms.

What Treatment Options are Available for MS?

There are a number of different medications that can be used to manage relapses due to MS. Treatment plans vary depending on the individual, but some drugs can be taken by injection or orally. Treatment plans devised by doctors should be followed closely for the best results.

Physical therapy, occupational therapy and different kinds of rehabs are also options for treating MS. Physical therapy can be very effective in improving posture, gait, flexibility, and mobility which all can be compromised due to MS.

Occupational therapy aids in helping an individual learn techniques that will improve their quality of life while living with MS.

Neuropsychologists and speech-language pathologists are all trained to help provide relief and therapy for cognitive or speech-related symptoms. Managing MS can be difficult, but there are a wide variety of resources available to help cope as best as possible.

Is There a Cure?

There is not a cure for MS at this time but it is not considered a fatal disease. Autoimmune diseases are still somewhat of a mystery to medical professionals.

Scientists and researchers are constantly hard at work trying to come up with inventive ways to make relapses few and far between. For now, MS is manageable with medication and therapy.

The life expectancy of those diagnosed has greatly improved in recent decades. The quality of life for those who do have MS is getting better every day with new therapies and medications.

It is possible to live a full and healthy life while managing the symptoms of MS. Refer to your doctor if you or someone you know may be affected by multiple sclerosis.

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