Often mentioned but not fully understood by the public is the condition of multiple sclerosis (MS)—an unpredictable, potentially disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and body.
March is National Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month and is a timely opportunity to raise awareness about this disease. Nearly 1 million people are living with MS in the U.S.
What causes MS?
The cause of MS is unknown, but scientists believe the disease is triggered by an unidentified environmental factor in a person who is genetically predisposed to respond. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with two to three times more women than men being diagnosed.
How is MS diagnosed?
Diagnosis of MS can be challenging. In its early stages, symptoms may be non-specific and can suggest several other disorders of the nervous system. They may come and go and be ignored. Because MS symptoms can be unpredictable, vary in type and severity, and can affect many different functions of the central nervous system, early diagnosis is important.
How is MS treated?
Early diagnosis is important because there are FDA-approved medications that have been shown to modify the course of MS by reducing the frequency of relapses and preventing the development of disability. The sooner a person can begin treatment, the better. The goal is simple: to prevent damage to the brain and spinal cord in people living with MS and to prevent disability. In addition to MS medication, new research shows that a healthy lifestyle can also influence the disease course. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, a heart-healthy diet and vitamin D supplementation all have been shown to improve the lives of people living with MS.
What are the symptoms of MS?
Because MS affects the central nervous system, it can lead to a variety of different symptoms. Below are some more common symptoms of MS:
- Walking/gait difficulties
- Spasticity (stiffness and involuntary muscle spasms)
- Vision problems
- Dizziness and vertigo
- Bladder problems
- Sexual problems
- Bowel problems
- Cognitive changes (trouble learning or remembering information; organize or problem solve)
- Emotional changes
Most of the above symptoms can be managed with medication, rehabilitation and other management strategies by a comprehensive healthcare team.
If you’ve missed an annual exam or routine screening, or if you’re having symptoms you are concerned about, you should contact your healthcare provider to get your appointments and screenings back on track. Prevention is key and early detection is vital.
Dr. Bridget Bagert is the director of the Ochsner Multiple Sclerosis Center. A New Orleans native, she earned her medical degree from LSU in 1997. Dr. Bagert completed her residency in neurology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, where she served as chief resident in her final year. She then went on to complete a two-year research fellowship in neuroimmunology and multiple sclerosis at Oregon Health & Science University/VA Medical Center in Portland, Oregon. She then earned a Master’s Degree in Public Health at Harvard. Dr. Bagert has been in active clinical practice since 2005. She joined Ochsner in 2010 as the Division Chief of Neuroimmunology, and she is actively engaged in MS research at Ochsner. Dr. Bagert is board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.