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Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a slowly progressive, degenerative condition in which the myelin sheaths surrounding nerves in the brain and spinal cord are lost. Myelin sheaths are a type of connective tissue, composed of fats and proteins, that insulate nerve fibers. They protect nerves and are required for effective transmission of nerve impulses.
Indirect evidence suggests that MS may be an autoimmune disease, wherein the immune system attacks myelin in the central nervous system. MS is more common among people who live in temperate climates compared with those who live in tropical climates and receive greater exposure to the sun. Possible causes for MS may include genetic susceptibility, diet, environmental toxins, viral infections, and exposure to dogs, cats, or caged birds.1 Epstein-Barr virus has also been named as a risk factor,2 though the real cause or causes of MS are unknown.
MS is characterized by various neurological symptoms, with remissions and recurrent exacerbations. The most common symptoms are paresthesia (numbness and tingling) in the extremities, trunk, or on one side of the face. Muscle weakness, loss of coordination of a leg or hand, and visual disturbances (such as partial blindness in one eye, dim vision, or double vision) are common in MS. Limbs that fatigue easily, difficulty in walking, difficulty with bladder control, vertigo, and mood disturbances may appear years before MS is diagnosed. The course of the disease is highly varied and unpredictable. In most people, the disease remits for varying periods of time. However, symptoms usually recur, and the progression is often relentless.
While some studies dispute it,3, 4 there is preliminary evidence that exposure to organic solvents,5 insecticides,6 and X-rays7 may cause or aggravate MS. This may explain why clusters of multiple sclerosis cases occasionally occur in certain geographical areas or even in work sites.8
Swiss researchers found that nicotine temporarily impairs arm movement in people with MS.9 In one study, when people with MS smoked cigarettes, movement capacity was diminished for 10 minutes in 76% of them. Although this evidence is preliminary, there are many other adverse health effects of smoking. Smokers with MS should quit smoking.
While the outcome of some research disputes the connection between MS and mercury exposure,10 other investigations have reported an association between dental amalgams and this disease. One study found that mercury levels in the hair of people with MS are higher than in the hair of healthy people.11 This same report found that people with MS who had their amalgam fillings removed experienced one-third fewer relapses than people who kept their fillings. Another preliminary study found that people having a large number of fillings that had been in place for a long time appeared to be at increased risk for MS compared with those having fewer fillings.12 Preliminary evidence has also identified an association between tooth decay—as opposed to fillings—and MS.13 The importance of the reported links between mercury, tooth decay, and risk of MS has not been clearly established.
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The information presented by Healthnotes is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires June 2017.