A new parent feels a little tingling and numbness in her feet.
Blurry vision leads a recent college grad to think he needs glasses.
And despite getting plenty of rest, a young sales exec can't understand why she's so tired all the time.
Every year, 10,000 new cases of multiple sclerosis are diagnosed in the United States, many of which start with vague symptoms like these.
“MS most commonly strikes between the ages of 20 to 40, when people are in the prime of their lives,” says Mary Ann Picone, MD, medical director of the MS Center at Holy Name.
MS can have a tremendous impact on the course of young patients' lives, from their relationships to their careers, because the disease demands so much of their energy and attention.
“Imagine having to think about every step you take, not being able to lift your own child, or even take a walk without having to stop multiple times to rest,” says Dr. Picone.
But there is hopeful news right now, she says. “We have so many more treatment options that allow young MS patients to keep their busy lives on track.”
What Happens in MS?
Multiple sclerosis is the most common autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. “The disease disrupts the flow of information between the body and the brain. It's basically a mistake in the immune system,” explains Dr. Picone.
While the exact cause is still not known, Dr. Picone says MS is the result of a combination of genetics and the environment, causing the body's immune system to go awry. The end result is typically problems with vision, balance, coordination, walking, and memory.
“There are different forms of MS, including relapsing, secondary, primary,” explains Dr. Picone. “They vary depending on whether you are male or female, how much myelin [fatty tissue that protects nerve cells] is damaged, and how many lesions there are on the brain.” Because there are so many types of MS, it has not been easy to treat, but new treatments bring new hope.
“Our waiting room used to be filled with young people in wheelchairs," Dr. Picone says. But that is just not the case today. "We have oral therapies, injections, IV therapies – all of which can make a tremendous difference in a patient's life."
One of the newest oral medications is called Cladribine. “This medication works by killing certain types of blood cells that attack the myelin in the brain and spinal cord,” says Dr. Picone.
“What's so great about this therapy is you take this drug as a tablet in two courses and this is hopefully enough to control the MS so patients don't need any more treatment for a year. It’s that simple,” she says.
Another new oral medication is Siponimod, which clinical trials have shown can reduce the risk of disability progression in patients with secondary progressive MS. “In addition, studies show Siponimod slows patients' brain shrinkage by 23 percent compared with a placebo, and it reduces patients' annual relapse rate after two years by 55 percent," says Dr. Picone.
She also points to a study underway of medications that can treat Epstein-Barr virus, which can trigger the onset of MS.
The Future of MS Treatment
All of these new medications are taking the treatment of MS in a whole new direction. “With them,” says Dr. Picone, “patients can actually forget they are living with the disease and that's what we really strive for.”
She adds that there is also some exciting research with regard to food and MS: “Several studies suggest that eating the Mediterranean diet -- which is high in plant-based foods, healthy fats, and fish -- can improve the health of patients with various diseases, including MS.”
Early detection is key. “Time is of the essence,” says Dr. Picone. “The longer you wait to see a doctor, the greater the loss of myelin and the greater the disruption of nerve fibers and tissue. This can result in more permanent damage.”
If you or someone you love would like to find out more about MS symptoms and early detection, please call the MS Center at Holy Name at 201-837-0727 or visit holyname.org/MSCenter/.