How Does Multiple Sclerosis Affect Spine Health?
An Autoimmune Disorder of Another Nature
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) occurs when—for inexplicable reasons—the body’s immune system attacks our Central Nervous System (CNS). Although traditionally thought of as an autoimmune disease, doctors are now rethinking this concept. But… why? Because autoimmune diseases usually have an identifiable, triggering antigen. In other words, we can typically discern the reason for the immune system’s attack through careful medical testing.
For example, often this attack occurs in response to a mutation in the genes of a cell (e.g. Rheumatoid Arthritis). In other autoimmune diseases, the introduction of a virus to the body can trigger the immune response (e.g. HIV or AIDs). However, with MS, researchers cannot identify the triggering antigen that urges our T-cells to attack our Central Nervous System.
MS Prevalence & Diagnostic Challenges
Despite this mystery, MS has achieved widespread prevalence around the world. In fact, The National Multiple Sclerosis Society estimates that MS affects over 2.3 million people globally. However, scientists have deemed this number “inaccurately low” for a number of reasons. For starters, the law does not require physicians to report new cases of MS. And, many people who suffer from MS go undiagnosed until their symptoms become particularly unmanageable. Furthermore, diagnosing MS in and of itself presents a challenge. Doctors may mistakenly attribute MS symptoms to a number of neurological conditions, like radiculopathy. Moreover, blood tests often prove ineffective. And, MRIs can boast only mixed success in visualizing the damage from MS.
A disease of diverse characteristics and trajectories, Multiple Sclerosis generates inflammation in the brain, optic nerves, and/or spinal cord. For reasons unknown, the immune system begins to attack the protective myelin sheath that protects our nerves. The resulting inflammation causes a number of troubling symptoms, which can lead to lesion development on the brain and nerves. One of the most common place for these lesions to arise? Unfortunately—the spine.
Spinal Muscular Sclerosis
Spinal lesions are so prevalent in cases of Muscular Sclerosis, that at least two thirds of MS patients will experience these during their lifetime. It has also been stated that 20% of individuals with MS will only experience these types of lesions. Spinal lesions most often occur in the cervical spine (i.e. the neck) and can lead to spinal stenosis, or constriction of the spinal cord. However, lesions can occur at any point along the spinal cord, from the base of the skull to the lumbar spine. Furthermore, presenting symptoms often relate to the location of these lesions on the spine.
Common symptoms of spinal cord lesions include:
- Motor Complications: Motor weakness, spasticity, and tension commonly result from the spinal lesions associated with MS. Motor symptoms often affect the legs but can occur in the arms as well when cervical lesions come into play.
- Paresthesia: Furthermore, individuals with spinal MS will likely experience numbness, tingling, and paralysis (aka symptoms of paresthesia). These symptoms will often be confined to specific locations, such as just one hand or one shoulder. Painful, shooting bursts of pain can also occur, especially with certain movements.
- Loss of Bowel or Bladder Control: Loss of bladder control occurs more frequently than bowel incontinence. This can present as mild incontinence, urine retention, or complete incontinence. For the bowel, constipation occurs more commonly than a complete loss of bowel control.
The Treatment of Spinal MS
Unfortunately, scientists have yet to develop a cure for Multiple Sclerosis. The good news: MS researchers have celebrated successes in developing more effective treatments for symptom management. Oral and injectable medications have proven to slow or even halt the progression of the disease.
In particular, many clinicians now offer an integrated approach to MS treatment. By combining a spectrum of wellness strategies, individuals with MS can lead healthier, happier, and longer lives. Components of this integrative approach include:
- Finding an Experienced MS Provider: A knowledgeable and caring team of clinicians can make all the difference.
- Establishing a Regimen of Medication: Working with your treatment team, you can find the right medication and holistic remedies to avoid and cope with any flare-ups.
- Developing a Healthy Lifestyle: The right diet and exercise can reduce stress on the body and the mind.
- Engaging in Meaningful Relationships: Having people around you to help you through rough times, and create the good times, can keep depression and isolation at bay.
- Maintaining Cognitive Sharpness: Keep your brain working! Crossword puzzles, art-making, cooking, or games on your phone can provide easy and fun distractions. Find something you enjoy to keep your mind sharp and happy.
- Rehabilitation Following Flare-Ups: Following a flare-up, make sure to see your rehab professional to get back on track.
- Coping Skills: Don’t underestimate the power of counseling or support groups! These entities can help you develop the coping skills that you never knew you needed.
Experiencing unusual neurological symptoms with your lower back or neck pain? Have your symptoms checked out today. Already living with MS? Keep on your treatment path and maybe add some new interventions from the list above. Individuals with spinal multiple sclerosis are now living longer and fuller lives … and so can you too.