Keisha Walter typically carried large purses. She was sure the numbness in her right arm was just a pinched nerve from that habit. But the pain didn’t go away.
At the time, she was just 23, engaged to be married and planning a 2008 wedding that was mere months away. She also hoped eventually to start a family.“The arm numbness was strange,” she recalled. “About a week later, I experienced tingling in my leg, calf, knee and thigh that also didn’t go away.”
Next, she felt a belt-tightening sensation around her waist. She knew something wasn’t right. Her physician referred her to a neurologist. An MRI exam found abnormal areas on her brain and spine. She received the diagnosis: multiple sclerosis, commonly referred to as MS.
According to Barry Singer, MD, neurologist and director of the MS Center for Innovations in Care at Missouri Baptist, most patients are generally between the ages of 20 and 40 years at diagnosis.
“However, people as old as 70 or as young as five can develop the first symptoms of MS,” he said. In the United States, 400,000 people are living with MS; worldwide there are more than 2.5 million.
“MS is an extremely variable illness that results in a variety of symptoms, including numbness or tingling, blurred or double vision, impaired balance, weakness, bladder dysfunction and fatigue,” said Mark Tullman, MD, neurologist and director of clinical research at the MS Center.
What Causes MS
MS, as defined by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information between the brain and body. According to Dr. Tullman, the cause of MS is unknown. “It’s likely the result of a complex interaction between the environment, genetics and the immune system.”
The most common type of MS, with 85 percent of patients being initially diagnosed, is relapsing-remitting MS. This means patients experience symptoms, or relapses of neurologic function, followed by partial or complete remissions or recovery periods. Walter said she did not know anyone with MS when she was diagnosed. Like most, she knew what MS stood for, but previously didn’t really know much about the disease.
“Every day for an MS patient can be different,” Walter said. “You’re not sure if you’ll feel great, terrible, or even have the strength to walk or hold up your head.”
There is currently no cure for MS, so treatment is an ongoing process critical to a patient’s quality of life and health. “If you don’t treat it, people with MS are at high risk for increasing disability,” said Dr. Singer.
Drs. Singer and Tullman are encouraged at how far treatments have come.They both have extensive experience researching new MS treatments. After working on new oral treatments for 20 years, they are pleased to see that the trials conducted at the MS Center helped lead to FDA approval of the first oral therapies. The MS Center at Missouri Baptist is also one of the first clinical trial sites in the United States to study myelin repair.
Patients like Walter benefit from establishing a long-term relationship with an MS specialist who can monitor their disease over time. About a year after diagnosis, Walter’s research led her to the MS Center where she has been under the care of Dr. Singer.
She experienced frightening exacerbations from MS in the earlier days of her diagnosis. Three times, for example, she lost her ability to walk. She’s also lost vision, which fortunately was temporary, too. She worked as an interior designer, but had to reduce to working part-time.
Childbirth and MS
“MS most commonly affects young and otherwise healthy women, many of whom want to start or add to their family. We develop a plan to keep MS in remission from conception to the postpartum period and beyond,” said Dr. Tullman. There is little risk of passing MS to a son (one to three percent) or daughter (five percent) and most people with MS do not have a close family member with the disease.
“Our goal is to keep the disease in check so people can continue to do what they love,” Dr. Singer says.