The beloved actress Christina Applegate announced more than a year ago that she had multiple sclerosis. Recently, however, her story entered the hearts of many after she announced that she probably won't be able to act anymore, as she felt like it was torture.
A few days after this announcement, she appeared at the ceremony to award her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, barefoot and using a cane.
MS is a chronic disease that causes damage to the central nervous system. It has a wide range of symptoms and it affects everyone differently - from a symptom-free disease to severe disability.
Dr. Keren Regev, director of the multiple sclerosis clinic at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center's neurological unit, was a guest on the "Expert Clinic" podcast to explain what causes MS and how to live with it.
Regev first clarified that MS is a rare disease despite that it affects 1 in 1,000 people and it mainly affects women. Regev stated that many autoimmune diseases in which the immune system attacks the body's own tissues are more common in women because women's immunity requires more flexibility because of pregnancy and childbirth and when one isn't pregnant there's more risk of autoimmune diseases.
MS is also a disease of young people which usually starts between the ages of 20 and 40. The disease is more common among smokers as well as among close relatives of MS patients.
What are the symptoms of multiple sclerosis?
Regev explained that there are a range of symptoms and MS presents itself differently in each person. It can sporadically damage any of the sites of the central nervous system, the supreme command of all our functions like the brain, the optic nerve and the spinal cord.
So MS can cause damage to the visual system such as a rapid decrease in vision, or decreased sensation in extremities, numbness on half the face or in half the body; impaired balance and dizziness; urinary tract disorders such as too much frequency or problems in retention; hearing damage, and other problems.
Each of these symptoms should lead to medical tests. Regev doesn't want to sow fear, but wants people to be tested faster. She added that the sooner it's detected, the more it's possible to preserve functional brain tissue for years, and prevent the processes of premature aging of various body systems.
She added that the diagnostic delay in multiple sclerosis averages about a year, which is too much.
It's important to clarify that symptoms vary greatly from person to person, and although there are cases of rapid and severe deterioration, like Applegate, there are also other cases. Regev says that no one is automatically on the way to needing a wheelchair. Many people have symptoms for years and deterioration is slow. After diagnosis, they receive treatment and live a completely normal life.
How to live with MS
Regev said that MS is like other chronic diseases like diabetes or blood pressure. It can't be eliminated, but one can live a full and normal life with it. MS won't disappear, but can be managed and controlled.
Regev added that MS comes in waves that are followed by improvement. After a wave is aggressively treated, the person returns to a functional life, new flare-ups can be prevented and more importantly the process of chronic and slow damage to the nervous system that accompanies this process can be avoided. With early treatment, the degenerative process can be prevented.
Regev added that there are 17 drugs available to treat MS with different levels of treatment intensity. There are pills, self-injections, infusions, medicines given once annually, once a month and/or every day.
Each treatment can be tailored for each patient. Regev stated that there are many considerations yet the various options allow doctors to find the best solution for every person according to medical and personal needs.
Room for optimism
The improvement in diagnosis and the range of available treatments allows people diagnosed with MS to live a normal life. Regev said that in the past, most people after about 10 years of illness progressed in terms of the damage, needed walking aids or had some level of cognitive withdrawal, but today the rate of people who need walking aids or have problems in cognitive function is much lower which is due to effective, early and proper treatment for the patient and strict monitoring.
Although there is a lot of reason for optimism, Regev said it's a complex disease to deal with. People see MS as a big crisis, and people diagnosed with MS feel that the sky has fallen.
These are difficult feelings to process since it happens to people at a young age, when life is just beginning and many decisions have not yet been made. It's a complex struggle.