What Is Multiple Sclerosis and How Does it Affect the Body?

Multiple Sclerosis

Earlier this week, Bad Moms star Christina Applegate revealed that she’s been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. “It’s been a tough road,” the 49-year-old tweeted. “But as we all know, the road keeps going. Unless some a**hole blocks it.” 

Applegate has put a spotlight on a well-known, yet little-understood condition. About 2.3 million people have MS worldwide, and it’s estimated that nearly a million people over the age of 18 are living with it in the U.S. But who most commonly develops MS and what’s the prognosis if you do? 

What is Multiple Sclerosis? 

MS is a lifelong disease of the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Though it’s generally understood that the condition manifests as the immune system mistakenly attacking healthy tissue in the CNS, the medical community still isn’t clear on exactly what causes it. 

The majority of MS patients are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50. Women appear to be two to three times as susceptible as men, a margin that has increased over the last 50 years. 

What are the initial MS symptoms? 

In around 1 in 4 cases, the first noticeable symptom is a problem with one of your eyes. This can include pain, flashes of light, double vision, and temporary loss of sight. Sam Jennings, 42, who lives in London, described her experience to KCM. 

“I was in my mid-30s, and I woke up one day with horrendous blurred vision in my left eye,” she said. “I worked a full shift at my flower stall, then made my way to Moorfields Eye Hospital in central London. I was diagnosed later by a Neuro-Ophthalmology team [who perform examinations to diagnose and treat conditions that can affect the brain and nervous system].” She continued, “They asked a lot of questions that didn’t seem connected to my eye at the time, but make a lot of sense now, like: ‘Do you get cold hands or feet,’ ‘do you trip and fall,’ ‘do you ever lose bladder control,’ and ‘do you sleep a lot.’ When I answered yes to all these and more, the penny dropped.” 

Other early signs include numbness or tingling in the body, face, and limbs, and the “MS hug”: a squeezing sensation around the torso. 

What are some typical chronic symptoms of MS? 

Fatigue can be the most common symptom in people who don’t display other signs and can significantly interfere with the ability to function at home and work. Bowel problems such as constipation occur regularly (but are manageable with diet and medication), as do bladder issues, difficulties walking, and pain and itching. 

Clinical depression can be a primary symptom, and/or prompted by the challenges of the disease itself. Likewise, emotional changes such as anxiety, mood swings, and irritability, can be both a result of neurological or immune changes and of stress. Cognitive functions — like the ability to learn and focus — affect 50 percent of people with MS.

As is often the case, Sam developed MS years before she was diagnosed, but it had remained undetected. 

“It became clear quite quickly that I’ve had MS since puberty,” she explained. “That was when I started tripping, falling with my ankles rolling, getting confused at school. It’s frustrating that none of my teachers noticed this was more than me being overweight and clumsy. I was very angry that I’d blamed myself for the pain when actually I had quite a serious condition smoldering away doing a lot of damage.” 

How has the pandemic affected treatment for MS? 

“The pandemic has impacted treatment for MS in both positive and negative ways,” explains Dr. Mitzi Williams, MD, an MS expert and board-certified neurologist based in Cobb County, Georgia. “Telemedicine has made access to neurologists more convenient for people who may live far away. For those who may not have access to technology, who have been impacted financially, or who have more limited resources, it’s been much more challenging and has made access to care overall more limited.” 

“I wish the public understood the importance of early treatment,” says Dr. Williams. “Sometimes it’s difficult for someone to understand why they should take a treatment if they’re feeling well overall or have already recovered from a relapse. It’s important to start and stay on treatment, as it will affect how a person living with MS will do in the future.” 

What is it like to live with MS?

“People assume it’s terminal, but it’s not,” says Sam. “They say things like ‘oh no, that’s so sad, I’m so sorry, you poor thing,’ which is patronizing. It’s not a pity party, I’ve just had to adapt.” She continued, “There’s a ton of frustration there though; on dating apps, I can match and have plenty in common with someone, but when I mention I’ll most likely arrive at a date in one of my powerchairs, I routinely get ghosted. It’s literally a mobility device. Would they ghost me if I used a scooter or got a taxi?”

What other celebrities have MS?

Applegate has now joined a lofty list of other public figures who’ve shared their MS diagnoses and in doing so, shed more light on what it’s like to live with MS. Selma Blair has been admirably open about her journey. As have Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Montell Williams, and Jack Osbourne, among others.