by ROSALIND RYAN, femail.co.uk
Multiple sclerosis is the most common disabling condition affecting young adults in the Western world.
Around 85,000 people in the UK suffer from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) with 2,500 new cases diagnosed every year. And women are twice as likely to contract the condition than men, with three women to every two men suffering from MS.
The disorder is normally diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40. 'MS is typically described as a disease that strikes in the prime of life,' says David Harrison, spokesman for the MS Society.
As yet there is no cure for the condition despite the vast amounts of research being carried out. There are drugs available that can help slow the progression of the disease, but the Department of Health has only just made these available on the NHS.
But the good news is that having MS is not a life sentence. Many sufferers lead long, happy and fulfilling lives holding down jobs, raising families and enjoying active social lives. Some even say MS forced them to take a good look at their lifestyle and change it for the better.
So how can you tell if you are suffering from MS? How is the condition diagnosed and how can you treat it? And does MS affect your chances of having a family or a career?
Femail.co.uk has all the facts. Read our guide to spotting and treating the condition, and find out where to go for more help and support.
What is MS?
Multiple sclerosis is a neurological condition, which means it affects your nervous system including the brain and the spinal cord.
All the nerve fibres in your body are surrounded by a protective coating called myelin. It works like an insulating cable, helping messages from the brain get to the spinal cord and other parts of the body quickly.
In MS, the body's immune system turns inward and starts to attack the myelin. When the myelin becomes damaged, the messages from the brain slow down or have trouble getting through. Depending on where the damage to the myelin occurs, this will affect different parts of the body.
For example, damage to the nerves responsible for movement can lead to poor co-ordination and damage to the nerves in the eye can result in blurred vision. This may not mean that the muscles themselves are damaged, just that the right messages are not getting through from the brain.
The patches of myelin that become damaged are like scars on the nerves. This is where the name multiple sclerosis comes from - sclerosis means scar and multiple means many.
What causes MS?
There are various factors that might be involved in triggering MS but medical experts are still unsure what really causes the condition.
The first factor that has an influence is genetics. Research has found that there might be a genetic predisposition to MS, however, the MS Society says there is no evidence of a specific MS gene.
Another factor is geography. 'MS is prevalent in temperate climates rather than tropical climes,' says David Harrison, spokesman for the MS Society. 'It seems to be that the further away you get from the equator, the more likely you are to find MS.'
There may also be a viral influence. Some experts believe that a virus may trigger MS if you already have a genetic disposition towards the condition.
No single virus has been identified as setting off the body's immune system to attack the myelin, but many people with MS have had viral illnesses such as measles, chicken pox or glandular fever.
MS is not contagious so you cannot catch the condition from somebody else. Two or more members of the same family may develop MS but this is more likely to be because of their genes rather than 'catching' it.
The symptoms of MS
The symptoms for MS vary considerably; from person to person, day to day and even hour to hour.
One day your balance may be affected and the next day it might be your sight depending on which part of your nervous system is being attacked.
However there are number of key symptoms associated with MS. It may start with double or blurred vision or pain at the back of the eye. You may then experience tingling like pins and needles or numbness in your arms, legs, feet and hands.
Other symptoms include fatigue or chronic tiredness, problems with mobility, balance or muscle spasms and possibly bladder or bowel control. You may also find it hard to concentrate or become forgetful. Others may suffer from anxiety or depression.
But it is important to remember that these symptoms do not necessarily mean you have MS. 'The symptoms of MS could also be symptoms of something else,' says David Harrison, spokesman for the MS Society. 'They are not unique to MS.'
Few people realise that there are four different types of MS and depending on the type you have, this can affect the severity of your symptoms.
'The most visible people with MS are those in a wheel chair so there is this misconception that it is inevitable you will end up in one,' says David Harrison. 'But the number of people who actually need wheel chairs is only about 15 per cent of sufferers.'
The first type of MS is benign. This is when you may have some small attacks and then make a complete recovery. It will not get worse as you get older and you are not left permanently disabled.
You will only be categorised as having benign MS if you have had no repeat attacks for 10 to 15 years after the first sign of the symptoms.
The second type is relapsing and remitting MS. This is when sufferers have alternate flare-ups of symptoms and then periods of recovery.
Relapses are unpredictable and no one is really sure what causes them. For each relapse you may experience the same symptoms or discover new ones.
'This is one of the most difficult things about MS,' says David Harrison. 'You are not just getting increasingly worse but you could get better and then have another relapse. You are dealing with something hugely unpredictable and it can be very draining, emotionally and physically.'
If the periods of remission between relapses get shorter and the severity of your symptoms gets worse with each attack, this is known as secondary progressive MS. This is the most common type of MS.
Instead of cycles of relapsing and remission, your condition will become steadily worse. This type normally develops 20 years after the first symptoms have begun to appear.
The final type of MS is primary progressive. Some sufferers never have cycles of relapses and remission but they have steadily worsening symptoms leading to disability.
'A typical MS patient may have the coming and going of symptoms in the early stages and then move onto the secondary progressive type,' says David Harrison. 'But typical is not really a word to apply to MS. MS is a very complex condition and it affects different people in different ways. No two people with MS are ever the same.'
Diagnosis and treatment of MS
Multiple sclerosis is a complex condition, making it very hard to diagnose.
Many of the symptoms could belong to another condition.
If you think you may have some of the symptoms of MS, the first thing to do is make an appointment with your GP. They will then refer you to a neurologist to confirm a diagnosis.
There is no particular test that a neurologist will do to check for MS but there are a number of common examinations.
A neurological examination is when the neurologist will look for abnormalities in your eye movements, co-ordination and speech or reflexes. This is to check that the nerve pathways involved in movement and sensation are functioning normally.
They may also carry out an 'evoked potentials' test. This is to check the time it takes for your brain to receive and understand messages.
Small electrodes are placed on your head to monitor your brain waves responding to messages. If the myelin has been damaged, it will take longer for the messages to get through than it would for a healthy person.
The most common way neurologists diagnose MS is by using an MRI scanner. This is when you lie down on a moving 'bed' that passes through a special scanner which takes pictures of your brain. It is very precise and can find the exact location of the scars on your nerves caused by MS.
The MS Society warns that it can take a long time to have your MS diagnosed. This is because neurologists will delay diagnosis until there have been two relapses attacking different parts of your nervous system at least one month apart and lasting for 24 hours. So if your relapses are fairly infrequent, it can take time to have your condition recognised.
How is MS treated?
There is no cure for MS but there are now a number of new drugs available that can help alter the course and progression of the condition. These are called disease modifying drugs.
In 1995 a class of drug called beta interferons were launched. They are not a cure for MS but studies show they can reduce relapses by one third, lengthen the periods of remission and reduce the progression of disability.
Interferons are chemicals that are produced naturally by the body. They work as message carriers and also play a role in the immune system. One type of interferon is involved in the destruction of myelin but beta interferon drugs cut down this destruction and boost the immune system to help fight MS.
Another disease modifying drug is glatiramer acetate. It is a synthetic protein that mimicks the protein which forms myelin. By 'copying' myelin, the drug stops the body's immune system attacking it. This delays the time between relapses.
Until February this year, NICE - the government body that decides which medicines should be available on the NHS - said these disease modifying drugs had limited effectiveness and were too expensive for the NHS.
But the Department of Health has now decided that patients whose neurologists believe they would benefit from the drugs can receive them on the NHS. If you are interested in being treated with beta interferons you need to ask your neurologist whether you will qualify for the drugs.
If you do not qualify for disease modifying drugs, there are a number of other ways to treat MS. There are drugs available which can help alleviate the symptoms of MS.
These drugs can help with muscle spasms, problems with incontinence and the pain that can come with MS. But if none of these drugs are effective, the Multiple Sclerosis Resource Centre suggests a number of alternative therapies.
Treatments including acupuncture, aromatherapy, reflexology and homeopathy can all help relieve the symptoms of MS. They can also help tackle the emotional problems associated with MS as patients come to terms with their condition.
Doctors have also just discovered that MS patients could be treated with their own blood cells. Researchers from the University of Washington Medical Centre found that stem cells - the 'mother cell' from which all other cells in the body are grown - can be grown from the patients' own blood cells.
One year after the cultured stem cells were injected back into the patients, the deterioration of the myelin had stopped in all the patients and the symptoms of MS had even improved for a small number.
But the scientists say the treatment is still in the very early experimental stages and will not be widely available to MS patients for many years.
Living with MS
Many people think having MS means you will become severely disabled and your quality of life will plummet.
But depending on the type of MS you have, your experience of life with MS can be very different.
The most important issue when you have been diagnosed with MS is to try to accept your condition.
The MS Society suggests focusing on the present rather than feeling bitter about the future and spending time to build on close relationships with family and friends will help you come to terms MS.
If you find it hard to cope it may be worth talking to others with the condition or finding a specially trained counsellor to help. Click in the blue box to find a support group.
Your career does not have to finish just because you have been diagnosed with MS, but the kind of job you do might be affected.
'If you have a job with long hours, a lot of travelling or if it requires manual strength, you may have to think about changing or re-training,' says David Harrison, spokesman for the MS Society.
You can still work full time after being diagnosed but some people in very stressful jobs may find it a relief to give it up and pursue a different, less demanding career. The hours you work and how long you want to continue working will be affected by the fatigue you feel, so don't be afraid to ask for help from your employer or family if you are struggling to keep up at work.
Women may also worry that having MS means they cannot have children, but the opposite is true - MS has no effect on fertility in men or women.
Pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding can all be normal, but any drugs you are taking may have to be adjusted whilst you are pregnant. Studies have also shown that the risk of relapses actually decreases while you are pregnant.
However, the risk of having a relapse after birth is up to three times more likely than usual. Luckily the progression of the disease does not get any worse and one year after giving birth most women have no more relapses than they did before having a baby.
The MS Society does warn that babies and young children can be very tiring, especially for mothers with MS. If you are feeling like you cannot manage, talk to friends and family to see if they can organise some help for you. It may also be worth talking to your doctor to arrange a care worker to help look after you and the baby.
There is no reason to give up your social life just because you have been diagnosed with MS either. The MS Society says it is important to keep up with friends who make you feel positive so you do not fall into the trap of isolating yourself.
Remember that your energy levels will determine how active your social life is so be careful you do not tire yourself out.
More information and advice
For more help and advice on MS contact the MS Society on their helpline 0808 800 8000.
You can also contact the Multiple Sclerosis Trust at
or the Multiple Sclerosis Resource Centre at
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