Multiple Sclerosis: What is it? How is it Diagnosed?

This podcast episode will give you a comprehensive overview of the condition, how people are diagnosed with it, and how you can help your patients adjust to with living with multiple sclerosis.

By Meghan Beier, PhD

Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple Sclerosis: What is it? How is it Diagnosed?

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Do you know what Multiple Sclerosis is? Many people don’t. It a chronic neurologic disease affecting approximately One Million Americans. MS can cause physical disability, cognitive impairment, and mental health challenges. In this blog post we’ll discuss what MS is and how it’s diagnosed.

So, if you’re a psychologist, psychotherapist or mental health provider who works with (or wants to work with) people living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), read on to learn more!

What is multiple sclerosis (MS)? Dr. Aaron Boster, board-certified Neurologist, and Founder of The Boster Center for Multiple Sclerosis, tells us this:

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune condition where the immune system inappropriately attacks the holiest of Holies, the super-computer that runs the body. And the super-highway the spinal cord that takes all the information from the brain down to your feet and back up. And it manifests really kind of in two ways: 

(1) People can have discrete episodes of neurological dysfunction where God forbid, they lose sight in an eye, or they can’t feel their leg, or their hand is clumsy. We call these relapses or flare ups or attacks. And it’s a period where a naughty autoreactive immune cell crossed from the bloodstream into the blood-brain barrier and attack the part of the brain or spinal cord and caused it to short circuit. 

(2) There’s a second way that you can have a pathology in MS, unfortunately, …which is independent from any relapse. And this is a situation where there’s a slow burn, where people slowly accumulate neurological disability over time.”

There is no way to know how one will react when the diagnosis sinks in.  For some, being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis can happen quickly; but for others the process may take time and be filled uncertainty

Ashely Pike, PhD Student at University of Arkansas, described feeling nervous and anxious about her symptoms. She also described symptoms that presented in adolescence but were dismissed until a more severe episode presented later in life. She describes her experience with trying to get diagnosed this way:

I was diagnosed, February 1st, 2008. Back in 2007, then later fall transitioning into winter, my right leg went completely numb all the way up to my mid torso. So, I could still use it, but it was completely numb.

So I went to my chiropractor, because I had a scheduled appointment that day and I told them about it and he kind of looked at me and he said, okay, we’re going to refer you to a neurologist.

They mentioned that my MRIs were very abnormal. Ironically that was what was causing my numbness. I had lesions in my neck where my chiropractor thought I had a pinched nerve. They did a lumbar puncture that was abnormal as well.

So going back through my clinical history, I actually have had the symptoms of MS of MS. That go back to about 13 years old. I can trace, severe fatigue. My same right leg went numb during volleyball season and they thought it was a pinched nerve in my back. It only lasted a few weeks, but looking at all that back, those definitely were symptoms of MS.”

Psychologists and psychotherapists can play a vital role in helping individuals manage the uncertainty of living with and being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  Dr. Kevin Alschuler, an Associate Professor at the University of Washington, a Rehabilitation Psychologist, Psychology Director and the UW Medicine Multiple Sclerosis Center, as well as a Co-Director of our MS Rehabilitation and Wellness Research Program, received a grant from the National MS Society to examine the experiences of people newly diagnosed with MS – the life after new diagnosis or LAND study.  From both this study and his experience with clinical care he had two main recommendations for treating people diagnosed with MS:

There’s two things that I can recommend with working with patients with MS, especially in the early phase. One is to look for those predictors of future trouble. And make that the intervention point, as opposed to saying, are they depressed? Or are they not? are they anxious? Are they not? But start looking at how do we help get patients on better trajectory.

And the other is having an appreciation for the fact that life with MS is full of managing and coexisting and adjusting. And it’s very different than trying to fix or change and get rid of problems that are in people’s lives.

We’ve talked a lot about the idea of a two layered approach where we try to fix the things a person’s doing “wrong.” So maladaptive thoughts, maladaptive behaviors, and so forth. But then when that’s done, they’re still stuck with life with MS. They’re still stuck with symptoms. They’re still going to have an impact on their life.

And so, then we shift into that idea of management and tolerance and acceptance and willingness and all the ACT type themes that give the person the tools to live their highest quality of life despite the fact that there are these challenges in their life.”

We hope you found this blog post interesting and informative. 

Hear and learn more from these compelling experts by listening to our first podcast launching January 6, 2022. 

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