Multiple Sclerosis: Who’s at Risk and How Is It Treated?

Hearing the words “You have MS” can be quite unsettling. But there are also a multitude of reasons to be optimistic about the future. Here, Patricia K. Coyle, MD, an internationally recognized multiple sclerosis (MS) expert, explains what MS is, how it’s managed and how Stony Brook can help.

What is MS?

MS is an acquired neurologic disease that affects the central nervous system. No one knows exactly what causes MS, but it’s believed that the body’s immune system attacks the brain and spinal cord. In MS, this process destroys myelin (the fatty substance that coats and protects nerve fibers) and injures the nerve fibers as well. The most common type is called relapsing MS and it involves neurologic attacks — also referred to as relapses, exacerbations or flare-ups. In relapsing MS, symptoms such as decreased vision in one eye, pins and needles from the waist down, or double vision are noted consistently over several days to weeks before improving. The more uncommon type is progressive MS. It involves the gradual worsening of symptoms, most often impacting the ability to walk, which can occur over months to years without recovery.

Who is at risk?

Ninety percent of people who are diagnosed with MS develop it between the ages of 15 and 50, but it can occasionally strike those both younger and older. MS is more common in women (at least 70 to 75 percent of patients with MS). The progressive form of MS tends to occur in individuals in their late 30s and early 40s, and it affects men as often as women. Vitamin D deficiency, smoking and having had mononucleosis all can increase one’s risk for MS.

How is MS treated?

We’ve seen the best long-term outcomes when treatment starts early. We now know that ongoing, accumulating permanent damage in untreated patients can occur even when there are no symptoms. This makes early diagnosis and a long-term plan to manage the disease essential. Treatment occurs on many levels: disease-modifying therapies, symptom management, treatment of acute attacks, ongoing health evaluations, lifestyle modifications and more. For optimal management of the disease, it is important to develop a relationship with your physician, along with a multidisciplinary team that knows your history. Together, they can continually assess your health status, modify your treatment and support you every step of the way.

What does Stony Brook offer?

Each year, more than 2,000 people come from across the country and around the world to our state-of-the-art facilities. They meet with our MS experts, who offer the most up-to-date diagnostic treatments and procedures, are involved in cutting-edge research and follow best-practice protocols. We provide our patients with coordinated care that includes medical treatment, rehabilitation, psychological support and referrals to ancillary departments as needed. Our individualized approach to comprehensive care ensures that our assessments, evaluations, diagnostic and follow-up testing, recommendations, education and treatment are tailored to meet your specific needs. In addition, because we’re an academic medical center, our patients have access to many ongoing clinical research trials for MS — many of which have been developed right here at Stony Brook.

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All health and health-related information contained in this article is intended to be general and/or educational in nature and should not be used as a substitute for a visit with a healthcare professional for help, diagnosis, guidance, and treatment. The information is intended to offer only general information for individuals to discuss with their healthcare provider. It is not intended to constitute a medical diagnosis or treatment or endorsement of any particular test, treatment, procedure, service, etc. Reliance on information provided is at the user's risk. Your healthcare provider should be consulted regarding matters concerning the medical condition, treatment, and needs of you and your family. Stony Brook University/SUNY is an affirmative action, equal opportunity educator and employer.