MS Can Flare and Relapse
MS flares may be old symptoms, such as fatigue, numbness, or tingling, which start up when someone with MS is overtired or perhaps fighting off an infection. “A relapse occurs when the disease acts up and causes new damage to the nervous system,” said Dr. McCoyd. “Relapse symptoms that last for more than a full day and include symptoms that are disabling are usually treated.” After treatment, these symptoms may go away completely, a period known as remission. New medications to treat MS are aimed at keeping people in remission for longer periods of time. Flare symptoms that have occurred before and are not disabling usually don’t require any treatment.
Four Types of MS
“There is relapsing-remitting, the most common type; relapsing-progressive; secondary-progressive; and primary-progressive MS,” explained Wilson. People who have the relapsing-remitting type of MS have periods of remission between attacks, when the disease does not progress. About 85 percent of people have this type of MS. The progressive types of MS are more difficult to manage and treat because they have few or no periods of remission between attacks. These types of MS are rare.
MS Is Treatable
There was a time when doctors could only treat severe MS symptoms with steroids, and then hope for the best. Now, however, promising medical advances are available. “If I have to say one thing about MS, it is that it is treatable,” said Wilson. “Gone are the days when we had to stand by and watch the disease progress without being able to treat it. There are a number of medications available, and more in the pipeline. Today’s medications are effective in reducing the symptoms and the progression of the disease.”
MS Medications Are Evolving
Steroid drugs are still used to treat MS relapse symptoms, but the big advance in MS treatment over the past 20 years has been a category of medication called disease-modifying drugs. These drugs are started as soon as possible after diagnosis to prevent MS progression. Medications called interferons, given by injection, prevent immune cells from getting into the brain and the spinal cord. Other medications are given by periodic intravenous infusion, and some can be taken by mouth. Newer drugs are becoming available that have fewer side effects, can be taken by mouth, and may need to be given only a few times a year. In 2012, for example, great advancements were made in the use of nanotechnology for treating MS.
The Prognosis for People With MS Is Improving
Early treatment with disease-modifying drugs has changed the prognosis of MS. “Except for rare cases of progressive disease, data from the past 20 years now show that people with MS can expect to live full and normal lives with no drop in life expectancy,” said McCoyd. The majority of people with MS do not become severely disabled. Although some people will need the help of a cane or wheelchair because of fatigue or weakness, about two-thirds of people with MS never lose their ability to walk.