Pediatric multiple sclerosis. Now there's a phrase you don't hear every day. But, sadly, it does exist.
MS, for all its variations and symptoms that come and go, is an extremely difficult disease to confirm in any case. Because MS is most often diagnosed in people over the age of 30, pediatricians generally do not look for symptoms in children. Early signs of MS can be vague enough and fleeting enough that they can easily be dismissed by both parents and doctors.
The advent of the MRI has made it possible for doctors to diagnose MS earlier than ever before -- even in very young children.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, studies indicate that “two to five percent all people with MS have a history of symptom onset before age 18. Estimates suggest that 8,000-10,000 children (defined as up to 18 years old) in the United States have multiple sclerosis, and another 10,000-15,000 have experienced at least one symptom suggestive of MS.”
We can well imagine the social and emotional problems associated with undiagnosed MS in children who experience relapsing/remitting symptoms, only to be disregarded. Those of us who have been through the process of a lengthy diagnosis understand the emotional upheaval of not knowing... or worse yet... not being taken seriously. For a child, it must be magnified a million times over.
What does a diagnosis of MS mean for these children? At this point, it's heard to say. There is some concern that cognitive function may be more pronounced in children because the brain has not had the opportunity to fully mature before the first attacks. Perhaps earlier diagnosis and the introduction of disease modifying drugs could slow progression. We can only hope so, but there is little history of the use of these drugs in children.
The question on my mind is are we simply getting better at diagnosing MS in children, or are cases increasing? We still don't know exactly what causes MS, but there are many credible leads, including a combination of genetics and environment. If environment does indeed play a role on the development of MS, studying children in the earliest stages of this disease could give us some of the answers we seek.
Knowing what I know about living with MS, my heart goes out to these children and their families. They need our support and encouragement for the long road ahead. It is for these children, and for those yet born, that we must press on with MS research.
Pediatric MS Centers of Excellence
National Multiple Sclerosis Society - Pediatric (Child) MS