Multiple sclerosis (MS) is the most common neurologically disabling disease that affects young adults. Symptoms usually appear between ages 20 and 40 but people younger and older may exhibit symptoms for the first time. MS is an autoimmune disease, causing the immune system to attack one’s own healthy body tissue just as the immune system does when it works to destroy foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. With MS, the healthy tissue under attack are nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
MS and the Frayed Electrical Cord
A simple explanation of how MS damages nerves can be done using the common electrical cord found in every American home.
Nerve impulses are rapidly transmitted from one nerve cell to the next from point of origin to the brain. Place a foot in an ice-water bath and the nervous system sends the message of cold to the brain. The brain then returns the signal with the message to move the foot to a warmer spot. This transmission of nerve signals is quite similar to how electrical impulses flow from one end of an electrical cord to the opposite end to make an appliance turn on or off.
Electrical cords are covered in insulating plastic to protect the electrical wire within and to keep the electrical signals flowing in a speedy straight line. When the outer insulating plastic layer is frayed, torn, or missing, the cord doesn’t work so well (lights flicker, radio plays static) and may not work at all.
Every nerve cell in the body is covered with myelin, a protective layer of tissue that protects the nerve cells within and keeps nerve impulses flowing in a speedy straight line, just like the insulating plastic sheath on an electrical cord. When MS is present, the body’s immune system attacks this protective myelin sheath, causing it to have holes and gaps that make transmission of nerve impulses less efficient. It causes plaque deposits in the brain, too.
Multiple Sclerosis and Women
The cause of MS is unknown and there’s no prevention or cure; treatment of symptoms is the goal of medical care. As with many autoimmune disorders, women are affected in greater numbers than men. Some of the drugs used to ease MS symptoms and prolong remissions between attacks may have a negative impact on pregnancy. Before and during pregnancy, it’s advisable to discuss the safest course of MS treatment available for the patient and her developing baby. Fortunately, many MS patients experience freedom from or greatly diminished symptoms of MS during pregnancy.
- Illnesses and Disabilities: Multiple Sclerosis. WomensHealth.gov. Office on Women’s Health / US Department of Health and Human Services. 22 Sep. 2009. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.
- Multiple Sclerosis: Hope Through Research. NIH / National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. National Institutes of Health / US Department of Health and Human Services. 21 May 2014. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.