GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Multiple Sclerosis is back in the spotlight with actress Christina Applegate’s recent announcement of her diagnosis.
The 49-year-old learned about it a few months ago, but she’s now sharing the news with others.
That’s why doctors are using the announcement as a time to raise more awareness.
“So, one of the most important risk factors for MS is actually being a woman,” said Spectrum Health Neurologist Dr. Nicholas Lannen.
He tells us MS occurs when your immune system doesn’t act how it should and that can cause injury to your brain, spinal cord and sometimes the nerves of the eye.
“It’s a complex interaction between your genetics, a little bit of chance, and these environmental exposures,” said Lannen. “Other environmental exposures to be aware about can be infections in youth, smoker, so there’s a big complex interplay – there’s not always a single answer like in other diseases – where we know there’s one gene associated with it.”
It tends to target women in their 20s to 50s but can happen during any decade of life.
“Being from Michigan, one of our risk factors is low sun exposure we think, so having low UV light and possibly low vitamin D levels,” he said.
One of the most important parts of our immune system are the white blood cells that help destroy bacteria. In MS patients, those same cells target the brain.
“What can happen is they become misdirected and start to treat the brain like it’s an invader,” said Lannen. “Our brain cells are a big network of interlacing cells that are almost like electrical wires – they’re covered in a fatty substance called myelin – almost like the coating of a wire.”
In MS patients, that coating is damaged causing injury and inflammation.
“It’s a quality-of-life question and a functionality question,” he said. “Symptoms to look out for are varied because depending on where the injury occurs in the nervous system – you can have variable symptoms. One of the common ones is optic neuritis where the nerves to the eye become inflamed.”
That translates to eye pain and vision loss. You could also experience clumsiness, sensory changes, weakness, and issues with bowel or bladder control. That’s why an early diagnosis is key.
“We have many treatments now on the market that can help lessen the effects of MS and help people live a more normal life.”
There are many conditions that can mimic MS so if you have any symptoms, just talk to your doctor to figure out your next steps.