Multiple sclerosis is difficult to treat and to study, for that matter, for two reasons: Its diverse symptoms vary greatly, and the cycling of attacks and remissions makes tracking the course of the disease and determining the effectiveness of a given treatment especially problematic. (A remission, for example, could be due to medication or might have occurred on its own.)

In general, medicines are effective only in treating the symptoms of MS, and then only to a limited degree. MS sufferers have thus vigorously explored a wide variety of alternative treatments as well.

In May 1996, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Avonex (Interferon beta-1a) for its ability to slow progression of physical disability and reduce the number of relapses, or flare-ups, in people with relapsing forms of MS. This joined Betaseron (Interferon beta-1b), which was approved in 1993 for reducing the number and severity of relapses in people with relapsing/remitting MS.

Other treatment is targeted to help patients function at their best level on a day-to-day basis. Some evidence indicates that steroid-type drugs such as ACTH or prednisone will reduce the severity of an attack. This varies, however, from individual to individual. Medications are available for symptomatic treatment. Muscle relaxers aid in reducing spasms. Bowel and urinary distress are treated with management programs. Some people benefit from intermittent catherization. A urologist or neurologist can help determine if this option is suitable. Rehabilitation programs are helpful in some cases to increase muscle strength or improve walking ability.

Conventional Medicine

Although the unpredictable nature of MS makes treatments difficult to evaluate, a number of medications are regarded as effective. Among them: interferon beta, which can (or may not) cut the frequency and severity of relapses; corticosteroids, which can shorten attacks and reduce inflammation; baclofen and dantrolene, which act to suppress spasticity; and muscle relaxants, which relieve stiffness and pain. A corticosteroid is frequently recommended to treat inflammation of the optic nerve, the cause of the double vision or involuntary rapid eye movement that sometimes occurs with MS.

Amantadine, an antiviral drug, may promote stamina. Some medications specifically target muscle stiffness, bladder and bowel problems, tremors, fatigue and the pins-and-needles sensation.

In several trial runs in 1994, cladribine, a drug used to treat leukemia, either stabilized or improved the conditions of MS patients; it apparently works by killing lymphocytes that may be attacking the central nervous system.

In a similar way, drugs like azathioprine and cyclophosphamide, and total lymphoid irradiation have been shown in small groups of patients to improve the clinical course of some.

Researchers are exploring ways to selectively target those immune cells responsible for the demyelination of MS. Physical therapy has proved effective in relaxing stiff limbs, maintaining motion in the joints, and improving circulation. A physical therapist can also help design an exercise program tailored to the individual's particular limitations.

Symptoms Of MS

Types Of MS

Causes Of MS

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