MS is a chronic disease of the central nervous system. It is an unpredictable condition that can be relatively benign, disabling, or devastating. Some individuals with MS may be mildly affected, while others may lose their ability to write, speak, or walk when communication between the brain and other parts of the body becomes disrupted.
There are many possible causes of MS, including viruses, autoimmune disorders, environmental factors, and genetic factors. All of the possible causes share the common feature that the body's immune system is prompted to attack its own nervous tissue. In particular, in MS, the immune system commonly attacks the layer of protein called myelin that surrounds the connecting fibers between parts of the central nervous system. This layer of protein normally provides insulation for the electrical signals that the nervous system uses to communicate. When this insulation is destroyed, communication becomes interrupted and ultimately parts of the nervous system are permanently destroyed.
Symptoms of MS are erratic. They may be mild or severe, and of long duration or short. They may appear in various combinations, depending on the area of the nervous system affected. Throughout the course of the illness, an individual may experience any or all of the following symptoms, to a varying degree:
Many people with MS experience cognitive impairments related to their disease. The effects of these impairments may be mild, often detectable only after comprehensive testing, and may include difficulty with any or all of the following:
The symptoms of multiple sclerosis may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.
Fortunately, pregnancy does not appear to speed up the course or worsen the effects of MS. However, it is thought that women who have unrecognized MS may be more likely to begin having symptoms during pregnancy. Some studies have found that MS symptoms decrease in pregnancy and increase during the postpartum (after delivery) period.
The disabling effects of the disease may make it physically difficult for the mother to carry a pregnancy. Muscle weakness and coordination problems may increase the likelihood for falls. Fatigue may worsen. Paralysis and wheelchair dependence may increase the risk for urinary tract infections. There is no evidence that MS causes infertility. Studies have shown that pregnancy, delivery, and congenital abnormalities are not significantly different in women with MS compared with those without MS.
Women in labor with MS may not have pelvic sensation, and may not feel pain with contractions. This may also make it difficult for them to tell when labor begins. Delivery of the baby may be more difficult in women with MS. While labor itself is not affected, the muscles and nerves needed for pushing can be affected. This may make Cesarean section surgery, forceps, and vacuum-assisted deliveries more likely.
Pregnant women with MS need close monitoring of the disease and of fetal well-being. More frequent prenatal visits may be needed. There is no established treatment that alters the course of MS. However, medications may be used in pregnancy including steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs. A procedure called plasmapheresis (a method for removing toxic elements from the blood) has been used in investigative trials for treatment of MS. Consult your doctor for more information.
Supportive treatment and rehabilitation for MS are especially important during pregnancy. Rehabilitation varies depending on the range, expression, severity, and progression of symptoms. MS rehabilitation may help to accomplish the following:
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