Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Awareness Week, March 2 – 8, 2015, is the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s yearly event to campaign for awareness, recognize progress, raise funds for research, and promote a world free of MS. As with many progressive diseases, connection and support among the community are essential elements of living with the disease, which MS Awareness Week recognizes. MS is a chronic disease that affects the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves at a progressive but unpredictable pace. Access to homecare can be essential to maintaining routine in the face of symptoms that are frequently disabling over prolonged periods of time.

About 2.5 million people around the world currently suffer from MS, and more than 400,000 of those areNMSS Logo in the United States. MS can develop at any age, although the large majority of patients are diagnosed between age 20 and 40. It is estimated that MS affects more young adults than any other neurological disease, and while scientists still don’t know what causes MS, environmental factors reacting with genetics are currently suspected. In fact, MS occurs twice as often in the US in northern states (above the 37th parallel) as in southern states, and people of northern European descent have the highest risk of developing it, no matter where they live. The global average is 30 cases per 100,000 in population, but Canada’s rate, for example, is 291 cases per 100,000. And there are other factors involved: being a woman, having a twin or parent with MS, or having another autoimmune disease all increase the risk of developing MS to a greater or lesser extent. For great infographics on the facts, statistics, symptoms and even treatment of MS, visit the Healthline website.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is considered an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body’s own immune system goes rogue for unknown reasons and starts to attack the body it’s supposed to protect. Research has yet to discover the specific antigen – or target – that the immune cells are aiming for, but effectively the immune systems attacks the myelin protecting the nerve fibers in the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. This damaged myelin forms scar tissue, which is called sclerosis (thus Multiple Sclerosis), and the scar tissue disrupts nerve impulses traveling through the nervous system. The disrupted communication between brain and spinal cord cause disabling physical symptoms, and since there’s no way to prevent the creation of more scar tissue, the disease progresses as communication slows and corrupts further.

There are four possible ways that MS can develop and progress, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s website does an excellent job of explaining all the possible types. In short,

  • 85% of patients develop relapsing-remitting MS at onset
  • 10% of patients develop primary-progressive MS at onset
  • 50% of those with RRMS transition to secondary-progressive MS within a decade of initial diagnosis
  • 5% of patients develop progressive-relapsing MS, the rarest form of MS

Just as there are many types of MS, there are many symptoms of MS, which vary by patient, and which vary over time. No two patients, even those with the same type of MS, have the exactly the same symptoms, with one patient experiencing one or two, and another experiencing many more. About 45% of people diagnosed with MS don’t have severe symptoms initially, but these are the most common early symptoms:

  • Fatigue that interferes with work or home life
  • Vision problems
  • Tingling and numbness
  • Muscle weakness or spasms
  • Balance and coordination problems

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s website has a very detailed list of all the possible symptoms of MS, categorized as common, less common, secondary, and tertiary. Unfortunately, there are too many to list effectively here, but if you suspect that a loved one may be exhibiting one of the common symptoms listed above, please go to their site and review the detailed symptom information. Since its establishment in 1946, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has raised and invested $870 million in MS research, and today, most of the symptoms of MS can be effectively managed with medication, rehabilitation and other strategies. Recovering from exacerbations, the serious flare-ups that occur as the disease progresses, require a rehabilitation program to restore the functions of daily living.

In addition to raising funds and awareness, the National MS Society offers support and connections to MS sufferers and their caregivers. Caregivers who have noticed some of the early symptoms in their loved ones  can go to the Society’s website to download resources, join an online support group, and even connect one-on-one with a Peer Support Volunteer. Just two decades ago, MS was an untreatable disease, but symptoms can be managed successfully when doctors, caregivers and homecare companions work together as a team. Adding a Casa Companion Specialist to the team can make living with MS, the unpredictability of its attacks and relapses, and especially working through restorative rehabilitation less challenging.