What is Multiple Sclerosis?

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Understanding Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a complex disease that's both difficult to understand and to live with. If you want answers, you'll find them on the Web. The nation's top MS research foundations, clinics, support networks, and health sites provide extensive information on the background of the disease, treatment options, coping, research, and much more. Use this guide to increase your understanding of MS, and become proactive in caring for yourself or your loved one.

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease of the central nervous system that, according to the Mayo Clinic, affects roughly 300,000 people in the United States. The prevailing theory is that the body's immune system turns on itself and attacks the layer of insulating tissue that protects the nerve fibers surrounding the spinal cord and brain, resulting in a variety of symptoms that may include muscle weakness, blurred vision, difficulty walking, depression, and paralysis.

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  • Like most diseases and disorders, MS has inspired several publicly and/or privately funded foundations devoted to helping its sufferers through education and research. These foundations typically summarize and promote their programs and their latest findings on their Web sites, and are thus valuable sources of information. An example is found at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's site, which clearly describes new and old research efforts.
  • If you encounter unfamiliar medical terms while doing your research, consult a medical dictionary or encyclopedia. A good place to start is with the HealingWell.com glossary of MS-related terms. By using these resources you'll have a better chance of fully comprehending lingo-laden articles.

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Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms and Diagnosis

The signs and symptoms of MS vary wildly, not only from individual to individual, but from day to day. According to a primer on disabilities from Arizona State University, multiple sclerosis can have a person feeling great one day and horrible the next, with no warning or explanation. The disease is often characterized by weakness, numbness, and difficulty moving. In this section we'll direct you to sites that describe the symptoms of MS in more detail, and explain the tests doctors perform to diagnose it.

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  • The list of symptoms that someone with MS might display is extremely long. Before jumping to conclusions about your condition, consult your doctor for an expert diagnosis.
  • You'll often see the symptoms of MS separated into two categories: early and advanced. The "early" symptoms are those that characterize the onset of the disease, and the "advanced" symptoms are its mature effects. Be aware of this distinction in your research.

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MS Treatment and Management

Unfortunately MS is a progressive, chronic disease, meaning it gets worse over time, and there are no known cures. There are, however, a number of ways to manage the symptoms and treat the disease before irreparable damage has been done. This section outlines the ways doctors and MS patients are managing the disease.

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  • The latest news on research toward alternative and innovative MS treatments can be found using news search engines like Topix.net. Topix has an MS portal that lets you directly access stories related to MS, from a massive list of sources, within hours of their publication.
  • Consumer health sites occasionally have video content to supplements their articles. This video from WebMD, which covers a study conducted to determine whether the dietary supplement alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) benefits those suffering from MS, is one example.
  • Doctors at the Mayo Clinic say MS can be treated in three primary ways: with medication, physical and occupational therapy, and experimental treatments. Read the objectives sought by the Mayo Clinic for each treatment.

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Living with MS

Multiple sclerosis patients can live long lives, but the degenerative nature of the disease and its symptoms often have a profound effect on the day-to-day conduct of a patient's life. Use information on the following sites to learn about and prepare for the difficulties, obstacles, and hurdles you might face.

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  • For many people, part of coping with a chronic disease is connecting with others who have the same disease and similar experiences. Many association sites offer newsletters and support groups-it may be worth your while to sign up and get involved.
  • Chronic illness like MS affects not only the person diagnosed, but his family, too. Encourage your family members and friends to use the Web to learn more about MS and how they can help.
  • YouTube contains several video diaries from MS sufferers, such as this one from user kwazykelli explaining what it's like to live with MS. Professionally produced videos about MS can also be found, including one entitled, "Faces of MS," produced by the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada. It offers insight into the lives of those afflicted by MS.

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MS and Children

MS can be a difficult issue for children to wrangle with. Whether it's a loved one, friend, family member, or the child herself who is experiencing the condition, the uncertainty and severity can make MS confusing and hard to understand. The resources in this section are all about MS and children; they discuss how to speak with a child about MS, present kid-friendly educational content, and overview multiple sclerosis in children.

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  • A Web site designed specifically for a teen or child can be invaluable when a crisis like the diagnosis of a chronic disease occurs in the family. Leaving the URLs for these Web sites available for your children or teens may be the best way to allow them to explore the sites on their own. Or you can invite your child to review the sites with you.
  • Use these Web sites to facilitate, but not replace, discussion with your children. The Web, as helpful as it is, is not a substitute for open communication between you and your children.

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Caring for Someone with MS

When a person suffering from multiple sclerosis becomes dependent upon another for care, it's not unusual for one person, often the spouse, to become the main caregiver. But being thrust into this role can be a great source of anxiety and stress. If unprepared, an already difficult time can be exacerbated. This section is filled with sites that offer tips and advice for caregivers, addressing everyday issues about the care they provide, while also offering advice on taking care of themselves.

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  • As a caregiver, you might be inclined to neglect your own well-being while focusing your energies elsewhere. Don't forget that your health is crucially important, because a burnt-out, tired, or sick caregiver isn't as effective as one at full strength.
  • Much of the information you'll find pertaining to care-giving is broadly applicable, and not specific to MS. Approach your research with this in mind, and search for general information in addition to MS-specific information.

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Multiple Sclerosis Support

Connecting with others who've experienced life with MS is a valuable way to learn about overcoming the challenges posed by the disease. Learn how to make that vital connection using the sites in this section.

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  • Support sites, forums, message boards, and chat rooms can all be used as support outlets. Some support groups and boards are moderated; others are not. Moderated Web sites are usually run by volunteers who are familiar with the particular issue and can ensure that the board conversations don't go off track. Unmoderated boards can be very useful, but beware that there may be people with an agenda different from yours. Always use caution when chatting on the Web.
  • Support groups aren't only for getting help and advice-they're for giving it as well. Connecting with others to tell your story and offer advice can greatly benefit them, and give you a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

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MS News and Research

Ongoing research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of MS makes for a constant stream of news. In this section we'll show you how to get the latest news on multiple sclerosis.

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  • Some sites (PubMed, for example) either post or help you find abstracts (short summaries) of articles from professional journals. The full-length articles are only available to the paid subscribers of the journals. The abstracts, however, do give a good sense of the studies and their findings.
  • Disease research is funded both publicly and privately. Research foundations, such as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, actively promote the research conducted using the organization's funds, as a way to keep those who donate (as well as the general public) abreast of the latest findings. Nearly all research organizations publish this type of material online, making the "News" or "Research" sections of their Web sites valuable sources of information.

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