Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive, autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks the body. In the case of MS, the immune system attacks the myelin, which is the protective sheath that covers nerve fibers. The resulting nerve damage causes nerve signals to slow down or even stop altogether, and may also cause irreversible deterioration of the actual nerves. Damage to the myelin can occur in the brain, optic (eye) nerve, and anywhere along the spinal cord.
No one fully understands what causes this damage to the myelin to occur, but certain viral and genetic elements, along with potential environmental factors, are believed to be involved. Of current interest among MS researchers is the connection between MS and the Epstein-Barr virus, which is the virus responsible for infectious mononucleosis (“mono”) and which may also play a role in the development of chronic fatigue syndrome. Individuals who have a family history of MS, or who live in areas of the world where MS is more common (latitudes that are farther from the equator), are more likely to develop the disease.
Symptoms associated with MS vary among individuals and depend on the magnitude of the damage to the nerves and the specific nerves that are affected. Individuals who have severe cases of MS may ultimately lose the ability to walk, speak, and swallow. MS symptoms tend to come and go in the earliest stages of the disease, therefore it can be difficult to diagnose. Relapse and remission are quite common in the beginning, and flare-ups are often triggered or exacerbated by increases in body temperature.
In general, MS symptoms can include the following:
- Numbness or weakness in the limbs. This usually occurs on one side of the body or only on the bottom half of the body.
- Visual loss, either partial or complete, but usually in only one eye at a time. Affected individuals may also experience pain when moving their eyes.
- Double or blurred vision.
- Pain or tingling in various body parts.
- Sensations similar to electric shocks, which occur when moving the head.
- Lack of coordination
- Unsteady gait
In addition to the aforementioned symptoms, individuals with MS may also experience muscle stiffness or muscle spasms, leg paralysis, problems with bladder, bowel, and sexual functioning, difficulty concentrating and/or remembering things, depression, and epilepsy (recurrent seizures).
An accurate diagnosis of MS involves careful exclusion of other conditions that might cause similar symptoms, examination of blood spinal fluid, and imaging studies (such as MRI or CT scans).
Research on Fibromyalgia and Multiple Sclerosis
There is no research to suggest that individuals with fibromyalgia are more likely to have MS than those without fibromyalgia, or vice versa (Rowbotham, 2005). However, it is possible for individuals to have both conditions at the same time, provided an accurate diagnosis of each can be achieved. This can be difficult, however, because fibromyalgia and MS have a number of overlapping symptoms, including depression, anxiety, headaches, weakness or numbness in the limbs, extreme fatigue, muscle pain, inability to concentrate, and dizziness. In addition, the symptoms of both conditions vary widely between individuals, and can wax and wane over time. Additional similarities include the fact that women are much more likely than men to get either fibromyalgia or MS. The age distributions of each disease are also quite similar. Fibromyalgia is commonly diagnosed between ages 20 and 55, whereas MS is commonly diagnosed between 20 and 40.