In January of 2011, Leanne McNeil woke up one morning with a gray field of vision in her left eye. She went to a hospital emergency room where she was swiftly admitted to the hospital. Leanne was put on a steroid drip for three days and multiple sclerosis (MS) was at that time ruled out. It was left up to Leanne to follow up and pester people to find out what was wrong with her eye. She waited for months for appointments with a retina specialist, a neuro-ophthalmologist and finally a neurologist. She had further MRIs and a spinal tap that finally led to a MS diagnosis. Leanne was willing to share her story with me to help raise awareness about multiple sclerosis in women.
Multiple sclerosis attacks young, vibrant individuals in the prime of their lives, usually between the ages of 20-50. Just when women may be thinking of starting a family, or seeking a career they are passionate about, multiple sclerosis strikes. Leanne was 43 when diagnosed. Multiple sclerosis affects more than 2.1 million people worldwide with an estimated 400,000 people diagnosed in the United States. MS is diagnosed is women 2-3 times more than men.
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis is a progressive autoimmune disease. The nerves in our central nervous system are surrounded by a special covering called myelin. Myelin protects the nerve signals that flow from the brain to the rest of our body. Multiple sclerosis occurs when a person’s own immune system attacks this protective covering leaving scar tissue. Once the myelin is damaged, the nerve signals slow down or misfire, causing loss of movement and bodily functions.
What Causes Multiple Sclerosis?
While several theories about the cause of MS have been disproven (allergies, aspartame, physical trauma) the main cause of multiple sclerosis is still unknown. Genetic researchers are scanning hundreds of genes to discover a possible link to multiple sclerosis. Some studies are pointing to exposure to environmental toxins as the cause. Other scientists are focusing research on viral infections that could lead to MS. The answers that these studies yield will be important steps in improving treatment and diagnosis of MS.
What are the Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis?
With MS being prevalent in women, it is important for you to know the signs and symptoms that could lead to diagnosis. A woman with MS might have one or more symptoms that occur over time. It is important to know your own body, have regular physicals, and contact your own health care provider if you have questions.
- Poor balance and coordination
- Weakness in muscles
- Vision changes
- Mood change
- Slurred speech
What Tests Can Help Diagnose MS?
In Leanne’s case it took several specialists and a battery of tests to finalize her MS diagnosis. Common tests include tests for balance, muscle strength and coordination. A thorough review of your health history will be conducted as well as an eye exam. An MRI will be ordered to test for lesions of the brain or spinal cord. Leanne advises, “Do not give up – ever! Proper treatment and diagnosis are paramount.”
After the Diagnosis, Find Yourself a Team of Experts If you are diagnosed with MS, you need to form a team between yourself, health care experts and family. Your team of health care experts should include your family doctor, your neurologist, a physical therapist and an occupational therapist. Molly Whipple Harris, an occupational therapist (OT), reveals the benefits of working with an OT. “Occupational Therapists are well versed in assessing adaptive equipment and, down the road, assessing increased mobility needs. Adaptive equipment is available for a variety of needs. OTs can assess and provide strategies for increased independence, safety and prevention for home care tasks like laundry, meal preparation and cooking.” A Pittsburg physical therapist, Alice Beckett-Rumberger, offered her thoughts on how a woman with MS can lead a balanced life. “Over the years I feel the best approach to dealing with MS is to treat the symptoms you have, have a regard for the symptoms you may or may not have and remember to keep on living! Living a healthy lifestyle with moderate exercise with balance activities and stretching – yoga and water therapy are great, as well as maintaining a healthy weight so your mobility is not compromised, and dealing with stress which tends to aggravate MS symptoms.”
Find Yourself a Support Group Anxiety and depression are all emotions that an MS woman encounters. Support groups can provide connections to other MS women. The National MS Society offers support groups through message boards at their website (www.nationalmssociety.org) or the Wisconsin MS Chapter (www.nationalmssociety.org/wig/home).
Keep Humor in Your Life
Yvonne deSousa was diagnosed with MS at forty. “I quickly learned that keeping my sense of humor would be crucial to this journey. I have since started a weekly blog that uses humor to help others with MS add a healing giggle to their day. I am blessed with a strong faith, a great sense of humor, and a very handsome neurologist! He happens to be married so I guess you can’t have everything…” Yvonne’s blog, Finding Humor in a Multiple Sclerosis Life, can be found at http://www.yvonnedesousa.com.
Leanne’s World Today
Leanne works as a Social Media/Event Marketer. Her job is stressful, but she has learned to deal with fatigue and the loss of her eyesight. Her amazing husband, a doctor she has confidence in and family have helped her find a balanced and peaceful life.
Because it all begins with a healthy woman…
Sue Ann Thompson is founder and president of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation (WWHF), a statewide non-profit organization whose mission is to help Wisconsin women and their families reach their healthiest potential. WWHF provides programs and conducts forums that focus on education, prevention, and early detection of diseases that affect women the most; connects individuals to health resources; produces and distributes the most up-to-date health education and resource materials; and, awards grants and scholarships to women health researchers and related community non-profits. To learn more, visit wwhf.org or call 1-800-448-5148.