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What is multiple sclerosis treatment?

Discover multiple sclerosis treatment options and understand how the disease progresses.

Muscle relaxers are used to help ease the painful symptoms of multiple sclerosis. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Muscle relaxers are used to help ease the painful symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a disease that affects the nervous system, interfering with the channels of communication the brain uses to control the body. MS is unpredictable, and its symptoms can range from mild to extremely severe. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, nearly 400,000 thousands Americans are currently living with the disease. There is no cure for the disease, but the good news is that multiple sclerosis treatment can slow down its progress and reduce the frequency and severity of the symptoms.

Causes of Multiple Sclerosis

Many body tissues are woven through with a system of nerves. The job of this nervous system is to carry messages, in the form of electrical pulses, back and forth between the brain and the muscles and organs. 

Much like electrical wires, the body’s nerves are enclosed in a layer of insulation. This is called the myelin sheath. Multiple sclerosis occurs when the body’s immune system malfunctions and begins to attack this sheath. 

Doctors do not fully understand what causes this improper immune system behavior, but the result is clear: Damage to the myelin sheath eventually disrupts the electrical pulses that nerves are trying to transmit, leading to the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms

The symptoms of multiple sclerosis are extremely variable, but they can include: 

  • Numbness, weakness or fatigue
  • Problems with eyesight, like double vision or temporary loss of vision
  • Difficulty balancing or a lack of coordination
  • Difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly

The symptoms of MS can be mild, but in many cases it can become a completely disabling disease.

Multiple Sclerosis Treatment: Disease-Modifying Medications

The goal of disease-modifying medication is to stop the progress of the disease – to prevent the nervous system from sustaining more damage that will result in more intense relapses in the future. With this in mind, it's often most effective to begin treatment early, before there is significant damage. 

It's important to remember that disease-modifying medications do not relieve the symptoms of MS in the short term, and they don't eliminate relapses – even though they may make relapses less frequent and less severe. Disease-modifying medications also can have unpleasant side effects, including flu-like symptoms and skin reactions at the injection site. 

Currently there are six Food and Drug Administration-approved disease-modifying medications: 

  • Avonex, Betaseron and Rebif: These are three forms of beta interferon that help to regulate the immune system and also may reduce frequency of relapse. They are administered by injection.
  • Copaxone: This is a synthetic substance similar to the myelin that shields the nerves. Copaxone has been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of multiple sclerosis relapse.
  • Tysabri: This drug helps protect the nerves cells in the brain, reducing the frequency and severity of MS relapse. It is administered intravenously.
  • Novantrone: This drug suppresses the immune system and is also used in chemotherapy to treat cancer. It is typically only used in advanced or chronic cases of multiple sclerosis.

Other Multiple Sclerosis Treatments

Progressive multiple sclerosis is an uncommon form of the disease characterized by a steady decline without periods of remitting and relapsing symptoms. When the symptoms of progressive multiple sclerosis become severe, a number of treatments can provide some relief. 

  • Steroids can sometimes reduce the severity of symptoms, although it’s not certain if they affect the progress of the disease over time.
  • Tranquilizers and muscle relaxants can relieve the muscle spasms or stiffness sometimes associated with the disease.
  • Physical therapy and exercise can help to preserve remaining muscular function.
  • A number of drugs can combat fatigue and depression, including stimulants, antiviral medications and antidepressants.

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