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Multiple Sclerosis: What Causes This Life-Threatening Condition?

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Multiple Sclerosis (MS) affects approximately 400,000 Americans and 2.1 million people worldwide. It is a chronic inflammatory and neurodegenerative disease that can slowly take away a person’s ability to walk, communicate, and live. What causes this debilitating disease? Can anything be done to minimize your risk? And what should you do if you or a loved one starts experiencing symptoms?

What is MS?

For patients with MS, the body’s immune system attacks and damages the central nervous system (CNS), slowing or stopping nerve transmission.

What Causes MS?

Unfortunately for the millions of people suffering from this dangerous condition, scientists have not identified a definitive cause. They believe that it may be triggered by a combination of factors such as:

  • Immunology: Patients with MS experience an abnormal immune system response that damages their CNS. When MS occurs, the body’s T-cells are activated in the lymph system and travel via blood vessels to the CNS. Once they arrive, T cells release the chemicals that cause inflammation and ultimately damage myelin, the cells that make them, and nerve fibers. Researchers are studying this phenomenon to understand what triggers these actions—so that they can learn how to stop them.
  • The Environment: By identifying trends in locations where MS patient cases are high, researchers wonder if they will identify an environmental factor that triggers the condition. For example, MS is more common in areas farther from the equator. Some studies indicate that people with low vitamin D levels are at an increased risk of MS. For this reason, sun exposure, and thus being close to the equator, might reduce one’s risk. Studies have shown that when someone is born in a high-risk area and moves to a low-risk area before age 15, their risk lowers accordingly. This trend might indicate that exposure to some environmental factor at a young age might increase one’s risk of developing MS.
  • Infection: Scientists have investigated viruses and bacterial infections to determine if there is a link to MS. They have studied measles, canine distemper, human herpes virus-6, and Chlamydia pneumonia. Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is under particular curiosity to researchers.
  • Genetics: While MS is not an inherited disease, there is a genetic risk factor that could increase one’s chance of developing MS in their lifetime. The risk of someone in the general population developing MS is 1 in 750 to 1000; however, in identical twins, the risk is one in four. The risk also increases among first-degree relatives such as parents, children, and siblings.
  • Smoking: Tobacco use might contribute to an increased risk of MS and a more rapid disease progression. When one quits smoking, it may slow the progression of the disease and its debilitating symptoms.
  • Obesity: Particularly for young women, childhood and adolescent obesity might increase the risk of MS. Obesity might exacerbate inflammation, which leads to disease progression.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

Talk to your doctor if you develop the following symptoms, which may indicate the presence of MS:

  • Numbness or weakness in the limbs, often on one side of the body, the legs or trunk
  • Electric-shock sensations when moving the neck forward
  • Tingling sensations
  • Tremor, lack of coordination, or unsteady gait
  • Vision problems, particularly a partial or total loss of vision one eye at a time accompanied by eye movement pain, double or blurry vision
  • Slurred speech
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Problems with sexual, bowel, and bladder functions

Looking to the Future for a Possible Cure

Scientists are researching MS’s cause, evaluating such factors as immunology, infectious agents, epidemiology, and genetics. They hope that by identifying MS’s cause, they can expedite creating a cure or effective treatment for this condition that damages so many lives.