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Chronic ailment affects the central nervous system

February 12, 1999|By MEG H. PARTINGTON

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease that affects the central nervous system.

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It is more common among Caucasians than other races, according to National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and is twice as common in women than men.

The most prevalent neurological disease, MS affects as many as 500,000 people in the United States, according to information provided by The Jimmie Heuga Center. Two hundred new cases are diagnosed each week, according to the center, which was founded in 1984 to help people with MS improve their lives.

Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40, according to MS Society.

The initial symptoms of MS often include difficulty walking, abnormal sensations such as numbness or tingling, and pain and loss of vision due to inflammation of the optic nerve. Less common early symptoms include tremors, lack of coordination, slurred speech, sudden onset of paralysis and a decline in the ability to think, reason and remember, according to MS Society.

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The symptoms are a result of the destruction of myelin, the fatty sheath that surrounds and insulates nerve fibers in the central nervous system, according to MS Society.

There are several theories about what causes MS, according to MS Society:

* Immunologic: It is generally accepted that MS involves an abnormal autoimmune response against the central nervous system. The exact target that the immune cells aim to attack is still unknown.

* Environmental: Studies have shown that people born in an area with a high risk of MS who move to an area with a lower risk face the lower risk if they move before they are 15 years old.

* Viral: It is possible that a virus is the triggering factor in MS.

* Genetic: MS is not hereditary, but having a first-degree relative such as a parent or sibling with MS increases a person's risk of getting the disease.

Medications, including corticosteroids that relieve inflammation in different parts of the body, are sometimes prescribed to help treat the symptoms. Betaseron, Avonex and Copaxone are recommended by MS Society for management of the disease. Other treatments include exercise and occupational, physical and speech therapies.

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