By LINELL SMITH THE BALTIMORE SUN
(Published: Wednesday, September 22, 1999)
It started 13 years ago with the most routine kind of ache: Rhonda Wilkinson awoke one morning to find her left arm tingling. Up most of the night with a sick toddler, she figured she had just slept on her arm funny.
During the day, however, the pins and needles sensation persisted. And so did her difficulty swallowing. For two weeks, the 31-year-old mother had felt as if she had a lump in her throat. Maybe these ailments had something to do with the virus her entire family was battling, she reasoned.
By the next day, however, Wilkinson's entire left side tingled, from head to foot. Her physician sent her for a CAT scan to rule out such a life-threatening condition as a stroke or brain tumor.
When the results came back negative, Wilkinson was told she had damaged a nerve in her shoulder. Gradually, her symptoms subsided. Intermittently, they would flare up again, but to a lesser degree.
Then, four years later, she began to have trouble walking. A new doctor, reviewing her medical charts, suggested Wilkinson might have multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease that attacks the body's nervous system in unpredictable ways.
Although further tests also came back normal, Wilkinson began to suspect she might harbor the debilitating disease.
Two years ago, at a soccer game near her home in Bel Air, Md., her arms and legs suddenly went numb. She had also been having trouble walking again. She slowly made her way into the shade to escape from the searing August sun. At this point, she knew enough about MS to realize that heat was a classic trigger for the disease's symptom flare-ups.
Further tests confirmed the worst. Wilkinson, mother of three teen-agers, had contracted multiple sclerosis, a disease which physicians did not yet understand, much less know how to cure.
She had contracted a highly unpredictable disease which, at its best, could give her occasional trouble. At its worst, it could paralyze her or make her go blind.
While she was still leading a normal, productive life, Wilkinson felt devastated by the news.
"Although many people do not become disabled, there's always the fear: 'Gee, I could wind up that way.' The perceived life change is profound," says nurse-practitioner Kathleen Costello, clinical director of the Maryland Center for Multiple Sclerosis at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "I think the diagnosis creates a lot of anxiety. ... You're fearing what you don't know -- and even the best experts you talk to can't make concrete predictions (about the course of the disease)."
A disease that affects roughly 330,000 Americans, multiple sclerosis is caused by an immune system reaction that may originate from a combination of environmental factors and genetic susceptibility. The disease causes the body to break down myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds and protects the nerve fibers of the brain and spinal cord. Destroying myelin can interrupt and distort nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain.
Although MS is unpredictable, researchers know it affects twice as many women as men and twice as many whites as those of other races. It rarely attacks people living in tropical climates. Studies suggest that genetic factors may make certain people susceptible to MS, but there is no evidence that it is directly inherited.
Most people are diagnosed with MS between the ages of 20 and 40. No single test exists to confirm, or rule out, MS. A definitive diagnosis, which can sometimes take years, depends upon detecting patches of scar tissue in different parts of the central nervous system and upon recording at least two separate episodes of disease flare up.
But there is still no way to predict when -- or even if -- attacks of the disease will occur. Disease symptoms not only vary greatly from person to person but also from episode to episode.
Types of MS
Talk-show host Montel Williams was recently diagnosed with "relapsing/remitting MS," the most common form of the disease. This type exhibits unpredictable attacks of MS symptoms followed by partial, or total, remissions for unknown periods of time.
Others experience a more progressive course of the disease with steadily worsening symptoms that may not go into remission.
Although MS is rarely life- threatening, it is often crippling. Statistics suggest that two out of three people with MS will remain able to walk, but that many will need a cane, walker or other assistance.
For more information, call the National Multiple Sclerosis Society at
(800) 344-4867 or visit the society's Web site (www.nmss.org).