March is Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month. This disease affects roughly 400,000 people in the United States and 2.5 million people worldwide. It is estimated that there are 200 new cases of MS each week in the United States. The goal of MS Awareness Month is to educate people about the disease and teach people how to provide support for those affected by MS.
What is Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
Multiple Sclerosis is when a person’s immune system starts attacking their own nerve fibers, specifically the protective covering known as myelin. As this protective covering wears down, the nerves become less and less able to carry information through the spinal cord and into the brain. Over time, this results in problems with vision, balance, speech, coordination, and concentration. Unlike some other diseases, everyone shows different symptoms for MS because the disease affects each person differently.
Who Gets MS?
Anyone can get MS but most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20-50 and women are 2-3 times more likely to develop MS as compared to men. While genetic factors can play a role in MS, there are also environmental factors that have been linked to MS such as cigarette smoking and low vitamin D levels. Even though MS is most common among Caucasians and those of northern European descent, MS affects all ethnic groups including African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics/Latinos.
How to Manage MS
While there is no cure for MS yet, there are many ways to help treat the symptoms and manage how fast the disease progresses.
- Nutrition: As with everything, maintaining a well-balanced diet is key. For those with MS, the recommended diet is a low-fat, high-fiber diet – the same one that the rest of the country is also recommended to follow. There are some specialized diets that can help manage some of the MS symptoms but its important to talk with your doctor first since some of these diets can actually do more harm than good.
- Exercise: The benefits of exercising are mostly the same for people with MS as for people without MS. In general, exercise provides better heart health, improved strength and flexibility and less fatigue. For those with MS, inactivity can result in heart disease, weak muscles, lower bone density, and difficulty breathing. If traditional forms of exercise are difficult, try yoga, tai chi, or exercising in water.
- Emotional Health: MS might not only affect your emotions, but it might also affect how you express emotions. As with most chronic diseases, depression is common but one of the symptoms of MS is also mood swings. If you experience any emotional distress, seek counseling and openly talk with friends and family.
How to Offer Support
People affected by MS don’t necessarily look sick – in fact, they can look perfectly healthy on the outside. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling with the symptoms on the inside. One of the symptoms of MS is fatigue or feeling overly tired. Be understanding if someone needs to cancel plans or needs to use a handicap placard even though they don’t appear physically disabled. It’s important to remember that the symptoms of MS can come and go – they’re not always persistent. Those with MS describe their days as a struggle to do everyday tasks such as dressing themselves, eating, or even talking. Since MS can affect coordination and balance, be patient and mindful that someone might need to slower pace or an extra hand to help stabilize them. In general, have open communication, learn about the disease, and show compassion.
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