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Living with multiple sclerosis

Written by GEMS - Government Employees Medical Scheme
Melissa van Wyk* is a 35-year-old high school teacher from Port Elizabeth who relied on daily walks and a good diet to keep healthy.

Multiple sclerosis, a condition where the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system, can progress to the point where the sufferer completely loses mobility and has to use a wheelchair.She was always careful to maintain her health so it came as a shock when a year ago she suddenly started struggling to walk and was constantly exhausted.

Van Wyk says it was like her legs weren’t “listening to her brain” so she decided to visit her doctor immediately.

Her doctor sent her to a neurologist who booked her for a brain scan. From the scan, the neurologist was able to determine that Van Wyk had a disease of the brain and central nervous system called multiple sclerosis or MS.

Van Wyk was in shock when she was told she had MS. She wasn’t sure what MS was but she had heard it was serious. The neurologist explained to her that researchers are not completely sure what causes MS but what is known is that the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system.

Some people are more susceptible to developing MS than others. For example, it is much more prevalent among people of European descent than those of African descent and more common in women than men. MS is not contagious and it is not passed genetically from parents to children. The disorder is most commonly diagnosed between ages 20 and 40 but can be seen at any age.

MS attacks the myelin sheath, which protects the nerves within the central nervous system. These attacks can cause the flow of communication between the nerves to become interrupted and sufferers to go through periods during which they can feel they are losing the ability to control their bodies.

Possible early symptoms

Symptoms can include:

  • Lack of coordination and trouble with balance.
  • Difficulty walking.
  • Weakness in a limb.
  • Tingling, numbness or pain in the limbs.
  • Double vision or loss of vision in one eye.
  • Fatigue.

If you experience these symptoms visit your doctor immediately because early treatment can help prevent flare-ups of the disease.

A progressive disease

Doctors say the disease affects each individual differently depending on which parts of the brain and nervous system are attacked and how serious the condition is. In some cases it can be devastating, attacking the brain, spinal cord and nerves of the eye, causing a number of disabilities. Some people experience severe fatigue and loss of mobility when the disease progresses. There are those whose illness progresses to the point where they completely lose their mobility and have to use a wheelchair. Others are not so severely impacted by the disease and live normal lives.

Most people with MS have occasional relapses, which tends to advance the progress of the disease. It is a progressive degenerative disease, which means that it tends to get slowly worse over time. In between these MS bouts or flare-ups, sufferers may live completely normal lives without any deterioration.

Treatment reduces relapses

There is no cure for MS but a range of new treatments is available to treat the symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. These are able to extend the time between relapses as well as reduce the total number of relapses and their severity. Some people respond to treatment better than others. Van Wyk is one of those who has responded well, experiencing no further problems since her first attack.

She says that she is not as fearful of MS as she was when first diagnosed. Her doctor pointed out that most patients with MS could expect to live as long as anyone else and with advances in treatment, many of these years will be productive and free of serious disability.

Van Wyk has accepted that she is in a new phase of her life and is prepared to face whatever her future holds.

*Not her real name.

1. PubMed Health, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001747/
2. Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.com/health/multiple-sclerosis/DS00188
3. Multiple Sclerosis South Africa, www.multiplesclerosis.co.za