Do you know someone who has multiple sclerosis (MS)? More than two million people worldwide have been diagnosed with the disease, with about one million of those diagnoses among U.S. adults. But perhaps the scariest figure is this: The prevalence of MS among Americans has grown six-fold just since 1976. About 200 people are diagnosed every week with the disease.
What You Should Know:
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive disease that affects the central nervous system, damaging the nerves that send signals throughout the body.
There are four types of MS, the most common being relapsing-remitting MS.
March is MS Awareness Month, the perfect time to learn more about this disease and share your knowledge with others to increase awareness.
Women are likelier to have MS than men and it appears that being overweight may raise your risk, while more exposure to sunlight may lower risk.
With the numbers growing at an alarming rate, raising awareness has never been more urgent. Start by wearing an orange ribbon throughout the month of March to observe MS Awareness Month, then read on to learn more about this disease and what you can do to help.
The Basics: What is MS?
The central nervous system (CNS) is made up of the brain and spinal cord. The CNS constantly sends signals, making connections that allow our bodies and minds to function.
MS is a chronic disease that affects the functioning of the CNS. Although there’s no known cause, a person’s own immune system is thought to attack healthy tissue, destroying the myelin insulation that protects the nerves.
If you imagine each nerve as an electric wire, the plastic casing around the copper wire is the myelin. When that casing is damaged in places, the wiring begins to short-circuit, causing a disconnect in the system’s ability to send signals throughout the body.
In most cases, the destructive nature of MS begins before someone is aware of symptoms or diagnosed with the disease. Early diagnosis and initiation of treatment is critical to slowing the damage to the CNS.
There are four types of MS. Each is named based on how MS acts on the body over time:
- Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS)
This is the most common type, initially diagnosed in 75% to 85% of those with MS. People experience flare-ups lasting days or weeks during which new symptoms of the disease appear. At other times, they are in “remission” and have few or no symptoms at all. But the disease is still progressing, even during these quiet periods, as the immune system continues to damage the CNS.
- Secondary progressive MS (SPMS)
With SPMS, symptoms worsen steadily over time, but without flare-ups or remissions. Before there were effective treatments for MS, roughly half of people with RRMS developed SPMS about a decade after first being diagnosed with RRMS. Long-term studies are under way to determine whether treatments started upon diagnosis with RRMS can delay the development of SPMS.
- Primary progressive MS (PPMS)
Only about 10% of people with MS have PPMS. With this type, people have progressively worsening symptoms but without flare-ups or remissions, from the very beginning of the disease.
- Progressive-relapsing MS (PRMS)
Even more rare, and occurring in only about 5% of cases, those with PRMS steadily worsen over time. They have flare-ups (relapses) but do not experience periods of remission.
No matter which type a person has, it’s important to slow the destruction of the CNS infrastructure.
Those with MS often struggle with finding knowledgeable healthcare providers who understand the disease, and the cost of treatment can be crushing.
The more people who know about MS and take action to raise awareness and encourage research, the more progress can be made. Treatments are helping people with MS live healthier lives, but trials to develop more effective therapies must continue to someday eradicate this debilitating disease.
What We’re Learning About MS
While no one knows for sure why some people develop multiple sclerosis, studies are revealing some trends, helping to focus research:
- Women are much likelier to have MS than men.
A review of Medicare data from 2008 to 2010 revealed dramatically higher rates of MS among women. The greatest number of cases — 59,716 — were diagnosed in adults ages 45 to 64. Of those, 44,831 were women. Researchers are unsure why women are so much more likely to develop MS, but believe hormonal differences play a role.
- Flare-ups are common after childbirth.
Women with MS tend to suffer fewer symptoms during pregnancy but experience flare-ups following the birth of their children.
- Body fat and obesity raise risk.
Inflammation appears to play a role in the development of MS, and research has established that obesity causes inflammation in the body. The fact that more than one-third of Americans are clinically obese (meaning they have a body mass index of 30 or higher) might help explain why worldwide cases of MS are disproportionately high in the U.S.
- The sun plays a role.
Researchers have found a link between MS diagnosis and vitamin D deficiency. Exposure to sunshine allows the skin to create vitamin D from a type of cholesterol. Studies show that the prevalence of MS is lower in southern states, which may be linked to more hours of sunlight. Conversely, MS is more common in places that are farther from the equator and get less sunlight.
How You Can Help
Raising awareness is key to supporting research that might provide more answers to questions about what causes MS and how better to treat it. Here are a few ways you can contribute:
- Give, if you can.
MS Run the U.S. is dedicated to raising awareness and money to fund research and provide aid to those with MS. You can also apply to be part of the 19-person staged relay run across the U.S. (3,260 miles!) every April to raise funds.
Multiple Sclerosis Association of America provides ongoing support and direct services to people living with MS and their families, as well as tools to help people manage the disease throughout their lives.
Multiple Sclerosis Foundation focuses on providing free services to address the critical needs of people with MS and their families so they can maintain the best quality of life possible.
National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) envisions a world free from MS. To that end, it works to ensure high-quality healthcare for those with the disease, empower those with MS to live healthy lives and deliver research breakthroughs that will lead to a cure and provide education and other resources.
- Learn more.
The nonprofit organizations listed above provide resources for anyone who wants to learn more about MS:
“About MS” is a 12-page downloadable booklet published by the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America. It provides an overview of MS facts, treatments and symptoms.
“Just the Facts” is the NMSS’s 28-page downloadable brochure delving into symptoms, diagnosis, treatments, MS types, and information about the organization. Topic-specific brochures offer information on choosing a healthcare provider, depression and MS, a guide for care partners and more.
- Use social media.
Hashtags are a simple and easy way to promote awareness and drive people affected by MS to valuable resources. Here are some of the hashtags you can use in your social media posts:
#multiplesclerosis #ms #mswarrior #msawareness #msfighter #multiplesclerosisawareness #invisibleillness #thisisms #autoimmunedisease #multiplesclerosisfighter #msstrong #multiplesclerosiswarrior #multiplesclerosissucks #love #lupus #wehavems #multiplesclerosissupport #autoimmune #chronicdisease #butyoudontlooksick #rrms #msproblems #multiplesclerosisproblems #ocrevus #msawarenessmonth #findacure #tecfidera #myinvisiblems #chronicfatigue #msstrength #health #multiplesklerosek #mssymptoms #lifewithms #invisiblestrength #multiplesclerosisfoundation #powerofpositivity #letscurems #tysabri #invisiblemonster #msunicorns #multiplesclerosisresearch
To conquer this disease, one thing is certain: More research is needed. Trials will also develop more and better treatments that enable those with MS to live their best lives.
Share this information through your personal and professional networks, including social media and in conversations with family, friends and colleagues. And consider taking part in MS Awareness Month activities in March.
Educate yourself. Educate others. Spread the word. Raising awareness is the first ripple of a wave that can change lives — and save them.