March is MS Awareness Month

March is MS (Multiple Sclerosis) Awareness Month in Ohio. Why? Our state has a very high incidence of MS – one of the highest in the nation. Of the estimated 400,000 people in this country with MS, an estimated 18,000 live in this state. Whatever it is that brings MS to more people in Northeast climates is still unknown, as is much about MS in general.

We do know that MS is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord and optic nerves). Signs and symptoms may include: numbness or weakness in one or more limbs; partial or complete loss of vision, usually in one eye at a time (often with pain during eye movement); double vision or blurring of vision; tingling or pain in parts of your body; electric-shock sensations that occur with certain head movements; tremor; lack of coordination or unsteady gait; fatigue; and dizziness. Once thought to be a disease of young adults, we now know MS hits a wider range of ages.

MS, using the body’s own defense system, attacks the myelin sheath that surrounds and protects nerve fibers. (The nerve fibers may also be damaged.) The damaged myelin forms scar tissue (sclerosis), which gives the disease its name. When any part of the myelin sheath or nerve fiber is damaged or destroyed, communications to and from the brain and spinal cord are either distorted or interrupted.. 

I first became aware of multiple sclerosis in 1967 in a doctor’s’ small consulting room at University Hospital when a neurologist, after examining my wife, Elaine, told us she had the disease. I had heard of it but I knew nothing about what it meant. Elaine knew more than that – her best friend’s mother had MS and had been in a wheelchair for years.

The doctor, who would go on to become a nationally known authority on MS, warned us not to read up on the disease. He told us that most of what was written about it was about the severe form of MS, while in fact it could take many forms. Since then research has identified four distinct courses of the disease: relapsing-remitting, primary progressive, secondary progressive and progressive relapsing. 

Which kind did Elaine have? “No way to tell,” the doctor said, and even if then known, it could change as time went on. (She has since lived a productive life with the remitting type of the disease, raising four children and me – an inspiration to our family.)

A reasonable nickname for MS might be the “uncertain disease” – no one knows how it will act for sure. It’s almost as if MS is tailor-made for each person that has it. The uncertainly also makes research very difficult – is a treatment working or did the disease just happen to go into remission? Such remissions often lead people to believe things are helping when it fact they are not doing anything.

As good as our doctor was in diagnosing MS – it was much harder to do back then but easier now with MRIs – he was wrong in telling us not  to seek information as limited as it was. I’m sure he wouldn’t do that today and would rather encourage his patients to seek information and help through organizations such as the National MS Society.

While no cures have yet been found, a number of effective drugs have been developed which help with symptoms and retard the progress of a person’s MS. The hope is that the more people that are aware of the disease, the sooner they realize they need to see a doctor and get the meds they need to try to keep it in check before more damage is done.

Chances are that you know someone that has MS and knows they have it, but chances are also good that you know some who isn't aware that they have it. Anyone with the prevailing symptoms noted above should be sure to see a doctor.

For information and help, contact the local chapter of the National MS Society at 1-800-667-7131 or visit www.MSohiobuckeye.org.

Mel Maurer

Mel Maurer lives in Westlake.

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Volume 4, Issue 6, Posted 11:47 AM, 03.20.2012