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Learn the Facts about Multiple Sclerosis.

By: Kathy Hubbard

Cristy Garland is a payroll specialist at Bonner General Health. She also has multiple sclerosis and, lucky for us, is willing to talk about it.

“I’ll talk about it to anyone, anytime,” she said. Sharing my story is important because very little is known about MS in the general public.”

Multiple sclerosis impacts the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves, which make up the central nervous system and controls everything we do. Some experts believe it’s an autoimmune disease. Other possibilities for the disease include infectious agents, such as viruses, environmental or genetic factors. The fact is that no one knows what causes it.

“We do know that something triggers the immune system to attack the central nervous system,” explains the National MS Society (NMSS). “The resulting damage to myelin, the protective layer insulating wire-like nerve fibers, disrupts signals to and from the brain. This interruption of communication signals causes unpredictable symptoms such as numbness, tingling, mood changes, memory problems, pain, fatigue, blindness and or paralysis.”

No two people have the exact same symptoms which makes the disease difficult to diagnose. Garland was diagnosed eleven years ago, when she was 32. “There is a reason it is called the ‘invisible disease.’ Most people look normal, just tired,” she said.

Garland also said that fatigue is the most difficult symptom for her to manage. NMSS says that fatigue occurs in about 80 percent of people and that it can significantly interfere with one’s ability to function and may be the most prominent symptom in those who otherwise have minimal activity limitations.

“It’s not fatigue like most people experience,” Garland explained. “When it hits, there is no amount of sleep or caffeine that will help. The only way to get past it is to rest. It may take an afternoon or a week.”

She says she manages by not making too many plans. She strives to get to bed early in order to get eight hours sleep. Plus, she limits her activities. “I’m not very good at it but saying ‘no’ to some invitations or plans is necessary.”

Besides fatigue, the list of symptoms is a long one. What I find interesting is that the list of common symptoms, although mostly similar, varies from one website to another. They all include mobility issues including loss of balance; spasticity which is muscle stiffness and involuntary contractions; vision problems which often is the first symptom, sexual dysfunction; bladder and bowel problems; numbness or tingling; vertigo and dizziness, and emotional changes including depression.

NMSS says that there is no single test or examination that can confirm that you have MS. “In order to make an MS diagnosis, the physician must find evidence of damage in at least two separate areas of the central nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves, and find evidence that the damage occurred at different points in time and rule out all other possible diagnoses.”

I asked Garland what her reaction was when she was diagnosed. She said, “I was confused and scared. It was a little hard to wrap my head around it. I wondered if I would soon be in a wheelchair.”

The course of multiple sclerosis is rarely predictable. Because researchers don’t know the cause, they find it difficult to predict the progression. What they do know is that it affects more women than men and that it’s mostly diagnosed in people between twenty and fifty years of age.

Healthline says, “Many people living with MS do not develop severe disabilities. Most have an average or near average lifespan. It’s estimated that one million people in the U.S. are living with MS. Of those, roughly 5,000 of them are children and teens.

Something else I found interesting is that researchers have found that rates of MS are usually higher further from the equator. Aha. Perhaps a vitamin D deficiency is a possible explanation.

And, although it’s not an inherited disorder, even though it may run in families, Healthline says a genetic predisposition to MS may be inherited.

Fortunately, Garland has a good support system. Before she was diagnosed, she had never met anyone with MS. She said, “That changed very quickly though, and luckily, I was referred to an amazing neurologist who is an MS specialist.”

Kathy Hubbard is a member of the Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com. If there’s a topic you’d like me to tackle, please send me an email. This article was written for publication in the Bonner County Daily Bee on March 13, 2024.

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