One of the best ways to support someone living with multiple sclerosis (MS) is to get a better understanding of the disease, its symptoms, and its treatments. With a condition like MS, with a wide range of physical, mental, and emotional effects, it's especially important that family and friends help in any way they can -- but the first step is getting to know the disease itself.
What Is Multiple Sclerosis?
When a person has MS, their immune system attacks their nervous system, eating away at the myelin -- a fatty substance that insulates the nerve cells. The damaged myelin forms scar tissue, which hinders signals moving to and from the brain and spinal cord.
We know what the condition is, but many other key pieces of information are still unknown. The actual cause of MS, for instance, is unclear. What makes the disease even harder to understand is that each person presents a different set of symptoms and may react differently to potential treatments.
A Complex Web of Symptoms
MS symptoms differ from patient to patient, including how long they take to show. Here are some of the most common symptoms, with statistics from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society:
- Fatigue affects about 80 percent of MS patients, sometimes severe enough to affect a person's ability to work or function at home.
- Bladder/bowel issues are seen in about 80 percent of patients, as well, ranging from constipation and problems urinating to incontinence.
- Depression is one of the most commonly reported symptoms, likely a reaction to the effects of other symptoms on the patient's life. Less severe emotional signs include irritability, mood swings, and episodes of crying or laughing with no obvious cause.
- Pain is reported by 55 percent of those with MS; half reported chronic or ongoing pain. Patients have also reported tingling or numbness in the face, arms, and legs.
- Memory loss, as well as effects on the ability to learn, problem-solve and pay attention, are reported by 50 percent of MS patients.
- Tremors, dizziness, muscle spasms, and trouble walking or talking are also seen in some people with MS.
The effects of MS may seem to fade over time for some patients before suddenly flaring up again for days or even months.
Because the number and severity of symptoms vary, pinpointing a person's problem as being specifically caused by multiple sclerosis isn't easy for medical professionals, which means that a comprehensive picture of the person's physical condition and health history is important for doctors to obtain.
MS patients have a range of options to choose from for help with symptoms, including over 10 established medications. Physical therapy is often prescribed to help patients with suddenly limited physical capabilities. Overall, though, treatment for MS is still developing, and new medications are continually being introduced.
Offering the Support Your Loved One Needs
As a close friend or relative to a person with MS, you'll have your own emotions to deal with, including anger, frustration, and helplessness. Those reactions are natural, as the disease is unpredictable and incurable. Here are some tips for being the most supportive person you can be while also taking care of yourself:
- Talk -- and listen. People with MS often have trouble telling people what they want and need. Of course, they feel guilty imposing on others. Let them know that you're there for them.
- Get them out of the house. Help the person maintain a social life, but be flexible -- they may tire easily.
- Take breaks. Maintain some "you time" to focus on yourself and what you enjoy.
With between 350,000 and 500,000 Americans living with MS, medical researchers have great incentive to continue looking for ways to control symptoms and determine a cause and cure for the disease. Until then, knowing the symptoms and the optimum treatment as determined by doctors is all we can do -- and being a rock for your loved one in need is the best action you can take.