Autoimmune Diseases

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Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system with symptoms ranging from numbness and tingling to paralysis. In MS, the body attacks the myelin sheath, which coats nerves in the brain and spinal cord. As a result, the ability of the nerves to conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain is disrupted. An estimated 300,000 people in the United States have MS. More women are affected than men.

Risk factors: Scientists believe that several factors are involved in the development of MS: genetics, gender, and environmental factors (e.g., viruses, trauma and heavy metals). The incidence of MS is higher in more northern latitudes, suggesting an environmental component to the disease. Epidemiology surveys have determined that a person's risk of developing MS increases several-fold if a close family member has MS.

Symptoms: Symptoms are caused by the destruction of patches of myelin, a protective covering of nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. The symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe. 85 percent of the time, MS symptoms appear as a defined flare-up followed by long periods of remission. In more moderate cases, people with MS experience a progressive worsening of the disease with no distinct relapses or remissions. In the most severe cases, which are rare (5 percent), patients experience a progressive worsening of the disease and acute flare-ups. Symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary greatly from person to person depending on the location of the nerve lesion. The symptoms include: abnormal fatigue, vision problems, dizziness, vertigo, bladder dysfunction, loss of balance and muscle coordination, slurred speech, tremors, stiffness, hearing loss, seizures, itching, numbness, sexual dysfunction, depression and pain.

Diagnosis: No single test is available to diagnose MS but several procedures are used. An MRI scan gives a view of the brain and makes it possible to visualize and count damaged areas or plaque in the brain and spinal cord. Evoked potential tests of electrical activity can detect a slowing in nerve impulses caused by demyelination. A spinal tap checks cerebrospinal fluid for signs of the disease. People with MS usually have elevated levels of IgG antibodies as well as oligoclonal bands in the cerebrospinal fluid. Sometimes, there are also certain proteins that break down products of myelin.