Things you may like to know about MS

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What is MS?

The central nervous system (or CNS)  is part of the body's communication system.  It is made up of the brain, spinal cord and the optic nerve, which mostly consist of nerve cells called neurons.  Electrical signals travel along the neurons in the CNS carrying messages to all parts of the body.  Nerve fibres known as axons are the part of the neuron that pick up electrical signals and deliver them to the next neuron.  Most axons are tightly wrapped in a white fatty material called a myelin sheath.  This acts like insulation, allowing the electrical signals to travel rapidly without being interrupted or distorted.  

The role of the immune system is to identify or remove viruses, anything harmful that enters the body, or dead and damaged cells. In MS, the immune system attacks myelin. This may be because something occurs which causes the immune system to react, or because there are issues with the myelin and the immune system is trying to clean up the damage. When the immune system continues to attack one area, it causes inflammation. Inflammation may cause a relapse in MS.

  • Statistics show that one in 20 Australians will be touched by MS through a family member, colleague or friend who is living with the disease
  • It is estimated that over 23,000 people in Australia have MS and 75% are women
  • 2.5 million people are living with MS worldwide
  • MS is the most common disease of the central nervous system in young adults
  • Diagnosis of MS is typically between 20 and 40 years, although onset os symptoms may be earlier

What is Demyelination?

Demyelination is damage caused to myelin by recurrent attacks of inflammation.  Demyelination ultimately results in nervous system scars, called lesions, which interrupt communication between the nerves and the rest of the body.

What is a lesion?

There are a number of conditions in which neurons are demyelinated, or lose their myelin. MS is different from other demyelinating conditions in that myelin is removed from neurons in concentrated areas. On an MRI scan, these show up as spots called lesions. Lesions show an abnormal change in the structure of an organ due to disease or injury. MS lesions can occur anywhere in the central nervous system. Generally, especially early in the disease, the body is able to repair myelin damage.

What is a relapse?

A relapse is formally defined as the development of new symptoms or the temporary worsening or recurrence of old symptoms, which is not caused by an infection or any other cause, and lasts more than 24 hours. When new inflammation and/or damage to myelin occur in the brain and spinal cord, a person with MS may experience a relapse. A relapse may also be referred to by other names such as exacerbation, bout, attack, flare-up or episode.  Common symptoms associated with a relapse may include issues with balance, bladder, eyesight, fatigue, memory and thinking, and mobility.  A relapse needs to occur at least 30 days after any previous episode to be considered a new relapse. A relapse may occur quickly with a sudden and intense onset of symptoms, or gradually, with symptoms appearing over a few days or weeks. While some people may experience mild symptoms, for others they may be more noticeable. The period between relapses is known as remission, which can vary greatly from a month to years.  Although the definition of a relapse may seem quite complicated, it is important that you try to understand what a relapse involves so you can discuss it with your healthcare team.

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