What is multiple sclerosis, and why are its signs so tricky to diagnose?

No one knows the cause of multiple sclerosis, but here’s what we do know about symptoms, diagnoses, and support for the condition.


If you’re a fan of Dancing with the Stars, then you likely noticed when famous actress Selma Blair dropped out of the competition in October 2022. She’d only been in the show for four weeks. 
The reason? Struggles related to multiple sclerosis, or MS for short. 
Selma Blair shared her diagnosis of MS in 2018. Ever since, she’s been open about sharing her diagnosis and has become a powerful advocate. She has raised awareness about the disease, which many physicians still don’t understand well. 
MS is a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. In patients who have this condition, the body destroys its own myelin, which is the fatty tissue that coats and protects nerve fibers. When the valuable myelin sheath is destroyed, the body instead tries to cover nerves with scar tissue. However, the stiff scar tissue stops electrical signals from conducting, so nerve impulses can no longer go to and from the brain. 
No one is sure what causes the disease. Many doctors believe it’s an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks myelin as a mistake. There may also be links to genetic causes, viruses, or environmental conditions
One reason multiple sclerosis is difficult to diagnose is because its symptoms are often vague. The most common signs of MS are fatigue, blurry vision, depression, anxiety, and bladder problems. These ailments can have a wide variety of causes. Symptoms like those can be attributed to many different conditions, so patients with MS often wait months or years before finally getting an accurate diagnosis. More advanced MS may have signs such as numbness, trouble walking, shaking, or paralysis. A diagnosis of MS usually requires an MRI to find examples of nerve scarring and loss of myelin in the nervous system. 
To make the condition even more confusing, some people who have MS may not exhibit all the symptoms—or any at all. MS affects each person differently. Some people may have symptoms for a short time and then they are fine; others may struggle with the disease for the rest of their lives. 
These factors make the disease difficult to diagnose. However, there is good news on the horizon. Stem cell treatments have shown promising results in improving the nerve function in patients with MS. There are also around 15 medications approved by the FDA to help treat multiple sclerosis, depending on the severity and type of MS a patient has. 
If you or someone close to you has MS, Select Health has resources to support you. Our Member Advocates can help you find a doctor near you that specializes in MS. Select Health Member Advocates can also help you find doctors that are within your insurance network and can even set up your appointment for you. We know that having a chronic disease can be difficult, which is why we also have Care Managers to help. Select Health Care Managers coordinate access to care, help you understand your benefits, answer questions about medications, and provide tools to identify symptoms you may be experiencing—at no additional cost. To talk to a care manager, call 800-442-5305.

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