One million Americans are currently living with a multiple sclerosis diagnosis, according to a recent study funded by the National MS Society. This neurological disease affects the central nervous system and disrupts the flow of information between the brain and body, which can greatly impact everyday activities.
Despite the growing number of MS diagnoses across the country, much is still unknown about what causes the disease. Meanwhile, treatment options, while expanding, are still limited. That’s why continued research is so vitally important, according to Jennifer Phillips, chapter president of the Greater Carolinas region of the National MS Society.
“In 2019, the MS Society invested more than $35 million toward new research projects,” Phillips said. “The society is the largest private funder of MS research in the world.”
One of the major fundraising opportunities for the Greater Carolinas region is the annual Walk MS event, which brings together people with MS, their families and friends and community groups that offer support to those living with the disease in a day of celebration and camaraderie. This year, Walk MS Charleston and Walk MS Spartanburg will take place on the same day – April 25 – at 10 a.m. The Lowcountry walk will be held at the James Island County Park, while the Spartanburg walk kicks off at the University of South Carolina Upstate. Last year, the two events combined raised about $122,000 toward research and resource programs for local residents with MS. Phillips said the fundraising goal this year is set at $135,000 from South Carolina walkers and team supporters.
“More important, though, is that we hope to continue to grow the number of participants at these events,” said Phillips. “People find tremendous value in being together at the walks. They reach milestones and encourage one another – it’s inspiring. It shows them that they aren’t alone in battling this disease and working each day to live their best lives.”
While people with MS find assistance and community at the walk events, they’re also supported by physicians across the state who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of multiple sclerosis and the management of their symptoms.
Mary Hughes, MD, a neurologist with Premier Neurology in Greenville, became focused on MS when her sister was diagnosed with the disease about 25 years ago.
“MS is typically diagnosed in the late 20s or early 30s, and it can be a life-altering disease,” Dr. Hughes said. “While there is no cure right now, there have been vast improvements in treatment options in recent years – great strides, really, within our lifetime – that can allow people to live a full life.”
According to Dr. Hughes, MS is the No. 1 cause of disability worldwide in the 20 to 30 age group and is a female-predominant disease.
“For every three females with MS, one male has it,” she explained.
Diagnosing the disease can be problematic for this reason, said Erin Burkill, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist with Tidewater Neuropsychology in Mount Pleasant.
“Often a patient’s first episode can go unnoticed,” Dr. Burkill said. “Otherwise healthy, young individuals may experience nonspecific symptoms that resolve spontaneously, such as blurred vision or changes in perception of color. The next incident can be more serious, like an abnormal gait on one side of the body or weakness in the leg or arm – there are many different ways initial symptoms can present.”
Patients generally need an MRI to officially diagnose the symptoms as MS.
“An MRI will show ‘white spots’ or MS plaques or lesions on the brain,” Dr. Hughes said. “There is no definitive test for MS, but changes reflected in an MRI can support the diagnosis. We can also identify inflammation related to MS by testing a patient’s spinal fluid.”
As with most health complications, prompt detection and treatment are key in managing MS symptoms. Now, Dr. Hughes explained, with the growing prevalence of multiple sclerosis, primary care physicians and other specialists, such as ophthalmologists, are more aware of the potential warning signs of the disease, such as fatigue or temporary changes in vision, and will take care to recommend testing.
“This is crucial,” Dr. Hughes said. “Earlier initiation of treatment means better results in the long run for patients.”
Treatments are wide-ranging and depend on a person’s specific symptoms, but, currently, there are 18 medications on the market approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in modifying the course of MS. They include pills, injections and infusions.
Additionally, specialists such as Dr. Burkill work with patients post-diagnosis to evaluate their psychological health and how the disease impacts day-to-day functioning related to brain changes caused by MS.
“Typically, we will see cognitive symptoms in about 60% of patients diagnosed with MS,” Dr. Burkill said. “And about 50% of MS patients will have a major depressive episode at some point during the course of their illness.”
The psychological effects of multiple sclerosis are why forming a strong support system through events such as Walk MS Charleston and Walk MS Spartanburg is so vital.
“Last year was my first year participating in the walk, and you can see how empowering it is for the patients and their families and friends,” said Dr. Burkill. “Patients with limited mobility will cross the finish line, and everyone cheers and applauds.”
“It’s a celebration in many ways,” Dr. Hughes said. “To be there is a triumph of thriving and surviving in the face of a devastating disease. It’s really ‘You should see me now!’”
Phillips encouraged anyone touched by MS, whether personally or through someone they know and love, to take part in one of the walks in late April to help spread awareness about the disease and raise money for critical continued research.
“It feels so good to be there,” she said. “And there’s the added benefit of helping us accelerate our work.”
Walkers can register themselves, build a team and find walking routes, logistics information and more by visiting www.WalkMS.org.
By Meredith A. Hagen