This week you will see more orange out and about than usual as these seven days are dedicated to the disabling disease multiple sclerosis and the importance of understanding the ailment and what it means to each person that suffers from it directly or indirectly in their lives. Since no two people have exactly the same experience of MS, the disease course may look very different from one person to another and it may not always be clear to the physician which course a person is experiencing.

March 14th through the 20th is MS Awareness Week and people all over the country will be recognizing it in their own local way. In New York City there are multiple billboards lighting up Time Square. For MS Awareness Week in Salt Lake City, Utah, the building at 222 Main Street will help shed light on MS by having an orange veil around it.

In general, multiple sclerosis (or MS) is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision. The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from one person to another.

The body's own defense system attacks myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds and protects the nerve fibers in the central nervous system. The nerve fibers themselves can 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, nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord are distorted or interrupted, producing the variety of symptoms that can occur.

People with MS can typically experience one of four disease courses, each of which might be mild, moderate, or severe.

First, people with relapsing-Remitting MS experience clearly defined attacks of worsening neurologic function. These attacks, which are called relapses, flare-ups, or exacerbations are followed by partial or complete recovery periods (remissions), during which no disease progression occurs. Approximately 85% of people are initially diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS.

Primary-Progressive MS is characterized by slowly worsening neurologic function from the beginning with no distinct relapses or remissions. The rate of progression may vary over time, with occasional plateaus and temporary minor improvements. Approximately 10% of people are diagnosed with primary-progressive MS.

Secondary-Progressive MS occurs following an initial period of relapsing-remitting MS, many people develop a secondary-progressive disease course in which the disease worsens more steadily, with or without occasional flare-ups, minor recoveries (remissions), or plateaus. Before the disease-modifying medications became available, approximately 50% of people with relapsing-remitting MS developed this form of the disease within 10 years. Long-term data are not yet available to determine if treatment significantly delays this transition.

Finally, progressive-Relapsing MS, which is rare is a steadily worsening disease from the beginning, but with clear attacks of worsening neurologic function along the way. Persons may or may not experience some recovery following these relapses, but the disease continues to progress without remissions.

While the cause (etiology) of MS is still not known, scientists believe that a combination of several factors may be involved. Studies are ongoing in the areas of immunology (the science of the body's immune system), epidemiology (that looks at patterns of disease in the population), and genetics in an effort to answer this important question. Understanding what causes MS will be an important step toward finding more effective ways to treat it and ultimately cure it, or even prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Source: The National Multiple Sclerosis Society

Written by Sy Kraft, B.A.