One of the most frightening aspects of a multiple sclerosis diagnosis can be the prospect of becoming partially or fully paralyzed. The good news is that approximately two-thirds of people with MS maintain the ability to walk, although they may need to use a cane or walker. Statistics also show that about 75 percent of MS patients never use a wheelchair in their lifetime. But why do some people become paralyzed while others do not? And, can people with MS do anything to prevent paralysis?
Causes for paralysis
With multiple sclerosis, the body’s immune system attacks myelin—a substance that surrounds nerve fibers in the spinal cord. When myelin becomes damaged, the messages that are sent to and from the brain become disturbed. This can result in paralysis.
The reason why some people become paralyzed and others do not is the same reason why one person with MS will be affected by fatigue or loss of vision while another person will not. The nature of MS is that the symptoms vary from person to person and are unpredictable. Other symptoms of MS—including numbness, blurred vision and muscle weakness—can worsen over time for some people and come and go for others.
Whether a person with MS becomes paralyzed may depend upon the severity of the MS and where the lesions, or damaged areas on the nerve fibers, are located. But while it may be frustrating not to know what to expect with MS symptoms, some studies have suggested that people can take actions to slow the progression of the disease.
Lower risk for paralysis
There is currently no proven cure or way to prevent specific symptoms; however, experts say that it is possible to manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease, which may reduce risk for paralysis.
Three things that MS patients should consider as they aim to reach their treatment goals are the following: Receive treatment for MS as soon as possible, follow doctors’ orders for treatment and continuously evaluate treatment.
In addition to taking medications, many people try complementary and alternative treatment options for MS, which include exercise, dietary supplements, mind-body practices and acupuncture. Recent studies have suggested that low levels of vitamin D can be a risk factor for developing MS and that taking vitamin D supplements can reduce MS disease activity when added to standard therapies. Exercise programs and mind-body practices, such as yoga and meditation, have also been shown to slow MS progression, although the exact reasons for their effectiveness remain unknown.
In order to best manage and control MS symptoms, it is essential that patients talk with their doctors to come up with the best combination of conventional and alternative treatments, as this may be the best way to reduce risk for developing increasingly severe MS symptoms.
The scientific community remains hopeful that continued research will lead to treatments that improve MS symptoms. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, one big area of research on MS is how and why MS affects the immune and nervous system. By gaining a better understanding of why MS causes the body’s immune system to attack healthy nerve tissue, researchers hope to develop more effective treatments and medications that can suppress the immune system and further slow progression of the disease.
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Multimedia journalist with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a master’s in Broadcast Journalism and Public Affairs