Spotlight on Multiple Sclerosis After Actress Christina Applegate Reveals Her MS Diagnosis
4 min. read
Emmy-award winning actress Christina Applegate announced via Twitter on Tuesday that she has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The 49-year-old “Dead to Me” and “Samantha Who?” star, who rose to fame as a teen in the long-running 1980s TV series “Married…With Children,” characterized her time since diagnosis a few months ago as a “tough road.”
The actress was diagnosed in 2008 with breast cancer and elected to have a double mastectomy, along with the removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes, after genetic testing uncovered her susceptibility to breast and ovarian cancer. With this latest diagnosis, Applegate joins talk show host Montel Williams and her co-star from the 2002 romantic comedy “The Sweetest Thing” Selma Blair, who also live with MS. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society estimates that nearly 1 million Americans have MS.
What Is MS?
“Multiple sclerosis results when the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells of the myelin sheath that covers the nerves of the central nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord and optic nerve,” explained Fawad Yousuf, M.D., a neurologist with Marcus Neuroscience Institute, part of Baptist Health, serving Palm Beach County with locations in Boca Raton, Boynton Beach and Deerfield Beach. Dr. Yousuf specializes in the management and treatment of MS. “The resulting inflammation causes lesions that disrupt the signals of those nerves to the brain. It’s like a sports car driving on an unpaved road – the signals get slowed down and bounced around.”
Risk Factors of MS
The risk factors for MS, Dr. Yousuf says, include being female, as MS is three to four times more prevalent among women than men. Age is also a factor, as most people are diagnosed between 20 and 50 years old, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Additionally, Dr. Yousuf notes that people of Northern European descent and those who live farther from the equator tend to have higher rates of MS, which, he says, has been linked to reduced levels of vitamin D. Smoking and adolescent obesity have also been linked to the development of MS.
Symptoms of MS
Symptoms can vary greatly, which can lead to difficulties diagnosing MS, Dr. Yousuf says, as they mimic other diseases and conditions. Most commonly, people with MS experience:
- Difficulty with their memory, attention and speed of processing information – what some describe as “brain fog.”
- Numbness or “pins and needles” sensation in their extremities.
- Problems with balance.
- Weakness in their legs.
- Bowel or bladder problems.
- Sexual dysfunction.
- Facial pain or trigeminal neuralgia.
- Optic neuritis caused by an inflamed optic nerve.
Because there is no known biomarker for MS and because the symptoms are non-specific, when Dr. Yousuf suspects MS, he follows the 2017 McDonald Criteria, relying on a medical history of symptoms; detailed neurological examination; MRI imaging of the brain and spinal cord to uncover the presence of lesions, where they occur and how recently they occurred; and cerebral-spinal fluid testing to detect certain elevated proteins.
Types of MS
Dr. Yousuf says that most cases of multiple sclerosis can be classified by three main types:
- Relapsing-Remitting MS (RRMS), the most common type experienced by 70-75 percent of all cases, is characterized by periods of symptoms as the immune system attacks the myelin, followed by periods where many, if not all, symptoms disappear.
- Some patients with Relapsing-Remitting MS later develop Secondary Progressive MS (SPMS). With SPMS, there can be a progressive worsening of neurologic function and disability over time.
- Primary Progressive MS (PPMS) tends to occur in the older male population but can affect women as well. Symptoms progress and disability can worsen without any period of remission, as with RRMS.
Treatments for MS
Treatment of MS depends on the type of MS and whether there’s an active, or acute, flare up of symptoms, Dr. Yousuf says. For those acute phases of the disease, steroids and plasma exchange can provide relief. For long-term maintenance to lessen symptoms and improve quality of life, he says there are currently more than 20 disease-modifying therapies available to help reduce symptoms and slow the progression of the disease to ward off neurologic, cognitive and physical disability. He says these therapies are key to maintaining a better quality of life.
Dr. Yousuf says a common misconception his patients have when facing their diagnosis is that their quality of life will quickly diminish. “With medical management and emerging treatments, we can slow the progression of the disease and disability, and most people can live relatively normal lives with MS,” he said.
Marcus Neuroscience Institute offers a comprehensive program to diagnose and treat MS. An infusion center provides patients with intravenous medications to reduce symptoms and slow the progression. The Institute also offers an MS support group and rehabilitation services to manage the physical symptoms that can occur with the disease.
As for Applegate, she is turning to those, like Blair, who have traveled down the road she is on. With her announcement of her diagnosis, she also wrote on Twitter, “I have been so supported by people that I know who also have this condition,” and asked for her privacy.
In an interview this morning on the Today show, Montel Williams offered Applegate this advice: “You have something that makes you better, because you understand how much you have inside of you and how much you’re willing to fight and how much you’re willing to stand up for yourself and do everything you can to thrive with this disease rather than let it take over.”
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