Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, unpredictable disease that impacts the central nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disease affecting nearly one million people in the United States according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. With the number of Veterans being diagnosed with this disease on the rise, it is important for our Veteran community to learn more about MS, its symptoms and the treatments available to manage it.
What Is Multiple Sclerosis?
MS is a chronic, unpredictable disease that impacts the central nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. It’s the most common neurological disease of young adults, with symptoms beginning between the ages of 20 to 40.
With MS, the immune system cells that normally protect us from viruses, bacteria and unhealthy cells mistakenly attack the central nervous system. This causes damage to myelin, the protective layer coating our nerve fibers, and slows down or blocks messages between the brain and the body. This interrupted communication can cause unpredictable symptoms such as numbness, pain, fatigue, blindness and more.
MS affects everyone differently. Some people with MS will have a mild course with little to no disability or limitations, whereas others will have MS that steadily gets worse over time, leading to increased disability and more significant limitations.
Several MS disease courses have been identified, including relapsing-remitting MS, which is the most common disease course according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Eighty-five percent of people with MS are first diagnosed with this type of MS.
To learn more about this and the other MS courses, check out the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) page About Multiple Sclerosis.
What Are Some Common Signs and Symptoms?
Everyone’s experience with MS is different, and the severity of symptoms varies greatly from person to person. Symptoms can include:
- Vision problems, including blurred vision, double vision, pain with eye movement and rapid vision loss
- Muscle weakness and stiffness, painful muscle spasms, often in the hands or legs
- Tingling and numbness, prickling or the feeling of pins and needles
- Trouble with coordination and balance
- Bladder control problems
- Painful limb spasms, such as sharp shooting pains down the legs or around the abdomen
- Thinking and memory problems
- Mental or physical fatigue
- Mood changes, depression, difficulty with emotional control or expression
How Is MS Diagnosed?
No one knows what causes MS. Experts suggest there isn’t one single reason why someone gets MS but rather a number of different factors involved, both genetic and environmental.
Currently, there is no specific test to diagnose MS. When symptoms develop related to different parts of the nervous system, your health care provider will use different tests and information to rule out or confirm your diagnosis, including a physical exam, a neurological exam, an MRI scan of the brain or spinal cord and other tests.
What Treatments Are Available?
There is no cure for MS, but there are treatments, rehabilitation therapies and medications that may slow it down, help control your symptoms and manage certain lifestyle limitations. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke offers a detailed list of the medications and therapies approved to treat MS by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In general, treatments include different options such as:
- Working with a team of specialists, including physical and occupational therapists, neurologists, urologists, pain medicine specialists, speech therapists, and social workers to help you manage various MS symptoms
- Using health and wellness resources to manage your MS symptoms and better your overall health, such as VA’s Whole Health approach, which helps you take charge of your MS by looking at diet, exercise, sleep habits, smoking cessation, and more
- Trying different MS medications or disease-modifying therapies that focus on controlling the immune system and managing your symptoms
You should work with your health care team to find the best approach to address your specific symptoms. The right medication, used alongside other health and wellness resources and therapies, can help you live a full and productive life. To learn more about treatments available for Veterans within VA health care, check out Treatment and Management Options for MS.
What Connection Does My MS Have to My Veteran Status?
According to research done by VA, the prevalence of Veterans with MS has increased in recent years, with the rate of MS among Veterans using the health care system growing. As a result, studies have been conducted by VA searching for a connection between military service and the prevalence of MS. At this point, no direct connection has been made.
However, as a Veteran with MS, you may be eligible for VA’s many services and benefits. VA provides health care services to Veterans with MS from the time of diagnosis throughout their life, regardless of whether it’s classified as service-connected or not.
To learn more about service-connected status as it relates to MS, check out VA Benefits and Services for Veterans with Multiple Sclerosis. This page also details health care services offered through VA, including information on extended care programs, sensory aids, caregiver support, and more.
A national network of MS care has been created to ensure access to these health care services. VA Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence are dedicated to furthering the understanding of MS, its impact on Veterans and effective treatments. Search for your region’s programs and specific locations near you. You can sign up for email updates from VA Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence about a variety of topics important to Veterans living with MS, including disease-modifying therapies, rehab services, new research in VA, alternative therapies and more.
What Resources Are Available?
In addition to the resources linked throughout this article related to benefits, treatments and more, here are some other resources to check out:
- Paralyzed Veterans of America can help Veterans with MS navigate living with the disease, secure benefits from VA and connect you to additional resources.
- VA offers stories from Veterans living with MS. VA also offers an MS & Vets podcast series that discusses important issues related to the health and quality of life of Veterans living with MS. There’s also a YouTube playlist featuring Veterans living with MS.
- MedlinePlus offers access to a wide range of articles and resources related to MS, including topics such as living with advanced MS, navigating relationships, staying healthy through diet and exercise, and much more.
- The National Multiple Sclerosis Society offers a section specific to Veterans with MS, including resource lists, support for Veterans, relevant article topics and much more.
While Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month will come to an end, we don’t have to stop learning about MS. Let’s continue to educate ourselves about this neurological disease and the resources available to help Veterans live fully after an MS diagnosis.