Multiple sclerosis: when the immune system attacks our own nervous system

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a degenerative disease of the nervous system found worldwide and is one of the most common in people in their 20s and 30s. Its cause and cure are not known, and it does not have the same symptoms in everyone, so it is not always easy to recognise.

Although not contagious or fatal, multiple sclerosis usually begins to manifest during youth and can become very disabling over time, seriously affecting the life plans of the person who has it.

What is sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is a disease that affects the central nervous system, formed by the brain and spinal cord. In healthy people, a substance called myelin wraps around the fibers that make up the nervous system, protecting them and facilitating the circulation of electrical impulses that are ultimately nerved signals.

This hinders the transmission of nerve signals, which is what gives rise to the symptoms.

In people with MS, this myelin deteriorates and disappears, leaving many areas with damaged, scarred tissue, called demyelization plaques. This makes it difficult to transmit nerve signals, which is what gives rise to the symptoms. Since each signal corresponds to a different body function, the symptoms can be so varied and difficult to associate in principle with multiple sclerosis.

Types of sclerosis

Not all sclerosis sufferers suffer from it the same way, which is why several types of MS are identified.

Relapsing-remitting sclerosis

It is the most common form of MS: it affects 80% of patients. In the early stages, although lesions in the nervous system are already occurring, there are no symptoms. Outbreaks appear suddenly and are unpredictable: symptoms appear that last a few days and weeks and then disappear again until the next outbreak.

Secondary progressive sclerosis

When the disability situation persists or worsens between two outbreaks of relapsing-remitting MS, it is considered that we are already dealing with secondary progressive MS, a more advanced form that develops between 30 and 50% of people who suffer from the relapsing-remitting form. It usually occurs between the ages of 35 and 45, and is characterized by continuous progression, with no outbreaks but no referrals.

Primary progressive sclerosis

It is infrequent, and is characterized by no outbreaks at any time, but the disease begins with a slow but steady worsening of symptoms, no periods of remission and only mild and transient improvements.

Recurrent progressive sclerosis

It is an atypical form in which there is constant progression from the beginning, but there are also clear sprouts. In the periods between outbreaks, the disease continues to worsen.

Causes of multiple sclerosis

MS is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s defenses turn against it, in this case attacking and destroying the myelin. But it is not known what causes this attack.

It is known that it is not a hereditary disease, but there could be a certain genetic predisposition combined with certain environmental factors.

The symptoms of sclerosis

As we have already explained, the symptoms of MS are very varied, depend on each specific case and evolve according to the damaged area of the brain in each patient, but some common patterns can be drawn.

The symptoms of MS are very varied, depend on each specific case and evolve according to the damaged area of the brain in each patient.

In patients with relapsing-remitting sclerosis, symptoms appear in flares, and may consist of loss of muscle strength and dexterity, blurred or double vision, loss of vision in one eye, numbness or tingling, pain, and balance problems.

In the case of primary progressive sclerosis, the onset of symptoms occurs gradually, especially those affecting mobility and motor strength. As the disease progresses, other symptoms especially related to the nervous system appear such as spasms, muscle stiffness, memory problems, sexual or concentration problems and urinary incontinence.

How is sclerosis cured?

There is currently no cure for sclerosis, although research is going on unstoppable to find it. What does exist are treatments to improve the quality of life of patients. There are more and more drugs that reduce the number and severity of outbreaks and thus delay the onset of neurological disability in the long term.

In addition, some lifestyle changes appear to have a positive influence on the progression of the disease. According to a recent study, intermittent fasting helps to reduce the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, as it would favour the destruction of damaged cells and the generation of new ones.

Physical exercise, on the other hand, has led to disagreements within the medical community, which feared on the one hand that the increase in body temperature with activity would worsen symptoms, and on the other that this would increase the fatigue often felt by MS patients. Today, according to a report published by the Spanish Multiple Sclerosis Association, it is considered that if the activity is adapted to the patients’ conditions, there is no risk in exercising, and that in fact it can be beneficial in improving many symptoms related to sedentary life and lack of movement.