Multiple sclerosis need not be a fatal disease


crutchfieldsquareMultiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease that affects your nerves. Electrical signals from your brain travel along nerves to your muscles and back from your body to your brain. These electrical signals must travel fast and accurately.

To do this, nerves are covered by a special fatty substance called myelin. Myelin acts to insulate the nerves, much like the rubber cover on an electrical cord.

For some reason still not completely understood, in MS the immune system of the body attacks the protective myelin covering on the nerves, which affects their ability to transmit signals between the brain and the rest of the body accurately. Over time, the nerves themselves may become affected and deteriorate.

Risk factors for developing MS include a positive family history; being female (women-men ratio for developing MS is 2:1!); or coming from a temperate climate like the upper United States or lower Canada, or similar areas in other parts of the world. Several viruses also have been linked to MS, including the Epstein Barr virus, the virus that is responsible for the disease mononucleosis. For some unknown reason, people of northern European ancestry are at a higher risk for developing MS.

The symptoms of MS can vary dramatically and are related to the amount and location of the nerve damage. In general, the disease is marked by periods of involvement or flare-ups interspersed with longs periods of non-involvement or remission. This is termed “a relapsing-remitting course.” The course of the disease tends to be progressive, that is, it becomes more severe over time.

Symptoms may include any combination of the following:

  • Numbness on one side of the body
  • Weakness on one side of the body
  • Loss of vision in one eye
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Pain or tingling in certain spots of the body
  • Slurred speech
  • Shaky hands and body
  • Difficulty walking, unsteady walking
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Bladder and bowel control problems
  • Tremor, lack of coordination or unsteady gait
  • Facial pain with certain head movements

Unless the disease is very mild, the treatment of multiple sclerosis typically focuses on three areas:

  1. Reduce the immediate attack or flare-up
  2. Slow the progression
  3. Manage any long-term symptoms

Flare-ups can be managed with anti-inflammatories or even plasma treatments. To slow the progression, several prescription medications can be used to modify the disease’s progression. Some of these treatments are pills and some are injections.

A doctor will recommend which treatment is best based on the severity of the disease. Symptom management may include physical therapy, medications to relax muscles, or medicines that address other symptoms like bladder control issues or fatigue or depression.

General health measures for people with MS include eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of rest, remaining active and exercising regularly (to increase muscle tone, strength and coordination), and reducing stress whenever possible.

Of course, the important thing is to take an active role in MS and work closely with a good doctor or neurologist to participate in the highest quality of life possible. Many people with MS die with their disease, not necessarily from it.


Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the U.S. by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians,