Coping with an unpredictable, chronic illness can take its toll, but natural treatments can help.
By Ellen Kamhi PhD, RN, AHN-BC, AHG, and Lynn Allison
Imagine for a moment knowing that you have problems keeping your balance but not knowing when you will lose it.
Most of the time you are fine, but sometimes you just can’t keep your feet under you. Will it be at the grocery store? While you’re walking to the bathroom? While holding your daughter? Imagine again that you also suffer from intolerable spasms and pain that cripple you at times, but you don’t know how long they’ll last or when they will happen.
Welcome to the world of Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
With more than 400,000 Americans suffering from MS, more cases are being diagnosed every day. This degenerative illness interferes with your central nervous system—the part of your body that controls behavior and movement—and manifests in unpredictable ways, creating different symptoms for each sufferer. Furthermore, the symptoms often “come and go” and are rarely consistent. They may include numbness and tingling of limbs, loss of coordination, tremors, loss or distortion of eyesight, dizziness, and pain.
What is it?
MS is a chronic, unpredictable, autoimmune disease of the central nervous system that affects the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. It’s considered autoimmune because it’s believed that the body’s own immune system attacks the person’s healthy tissue—in this case the healthy tissue of the central nervous system. More specifically, the immune system compromises the integrity of the myelin sheath that surrounds the nerves in the spinal cord and brain.
Think of the myelin sheath like a coaxial cable, the one that brings cable or satellite TV to your home. If you peel back the black plastic coating of the cable, you will find delicate wires underneath. If one of them is cut or damaged, the picture to your TV may not be as crisp or may fail completely. This is the same with your nerves.
Myelin is the protective insulation of your nerve fibers and is made of proteins and fats, and supports the correct transmission of signals along the nerve fibers. So when your brain tells you to pick up a cup of coffee, your hand will actually reach for the cup and pick it up. When the myelin is worn down, inflammation occurs and interferes with the transmission of nerve signals and can damage the nerve fibers themselves. So instead of picking up that cup, your hand may suffer a tremor instead, or not react at all.
Once the myelin is destroyed, it’s often replaced with scar tissue (also called sclerotic tissue). This is where the term “Multiple Sclerosis” originated, meaning “multiple scars.” Patches of these scars are found in random locations along the central nervous system because the body’s immune system seems to attack the central nervous system at random. Therefore, the symptoms and onsets of MS vary and are essentially unpredictable.
Diagnosis occurs in women at least twice as often as men, and MS is more prevalent in colder climates than in their tropical counterparts. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, but even children as young as 2 years old and others as old as 75 have developed the condition. It’s not considered a fatal disease, and the vast majority of people with MS end up living a normal life span, accented with unpredictable symptoms and attacks.
There are different types of MS, including relapsing remitting, secondary progressive, primary progressive, and progressive relapsing. About 85 percent of individuals are initially diagnosed with relapsing remitting MS, which means that the attacks of neurological dysfunction can become acute, followed by complete or partial recovery periods. After being diagnosed, an MS sufferer may fall into the other three categories depending on the severity, duration, and onset of symptoms.
The symptoms vary greatly from one individual to another and can come and go in an unpredictable manner. These symptoms are all neurological in nature and can include numbness and tingling in the extremities such as the hands and feet, and often occur on one side of the body. Loss of coordination of any limb and visual disturbances such as dim or double vision in one eye is common. Walking difficulties, tremors, lack of bladder control, bouts of dizziness, and mood changes also can appear, sometimes for years before the condition is diagnosed.
This makes diagnosis difficult because there is no actual definitive test for MS. The patient will usually go through several physicians and batteries of diagnostic tests to rule out other possibilities before the final diagnosis is made.
Obtaining a diagnosis can also be a struggle because conventional medicine says the exact cause of MS is unknown. Genetics is thought to play a role, since studies have uncovered an increased risk to relatives of people stricken with MS. Viral infections, such as Epstein Barr, have been established as a possible risk factor, and over the years, experts theorized that MS was caused by overexertion, toxins in the system, poor circulation, and allergies.
Modern science now supports the role of these “causes” as possible triggers that can lead to the development of a deregulated autoimmune response. Experts believe this could, theoretically, contribute to the development of MS, although no direct link has been established. “Research suggests that multiple causative factors convene in the development of auto-immune diseases,” says Dr. Nita Bishop ND. “Components include genetic predisposition (HLA Dr2 haplotype) and a trigger, such as a virus or environmental insult.”
For instance, several studies have shown that exposure to insecticides, solvents, X-rays, and other pollutants may be involved as a triggering agent in this illness. Mercury in amalgam fillings have been linked by some reports (although disputed in others) to MS. Furthermore, MS patients who had their mercury fillings removed reported a 34 percent fewer relapse rate than a group of MS sufferers that kept their fillings.
Exposure to environmental toxins may also help to explain the “cluster effect” where MS is more prevalent than normal in a given geographic area. Current research is also exploring the effect of various environmental toxins which may trigger genetic predispositions to the development or progression of MS.