Two nerves are reaching for each other across a bridge, but not connecting.

Why Does MS Cause Such a Wide Variety of Symptoms?

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series (Understanding the Nervous System & Everything You Need to Know About Nerves), I have been trying to illustrate for you what a huge responsibility your nervous system has. It is responsible for organizing and carrying out thousands of tasks every day. In order to handle such an overwhelming job, it must take a “divide and conquer” type of approach. Each area of your brain is assigned a different task. There are areas for everything ranging from speech, memory, coordination, hearing, emotions, and sleep, to bodily functions like bowel and bladder control, breathing, and digestion.

MS can cause a variety of problems

This is why MS, a disease that attacks the nervous system, can cause such a wide variety of problems. One doctor of mine once referred to MS as the whack-a-mole (fun game!) of diseases. There is no way to know or to predict where a lesion is going to occur. For instance, one can pop up in your temporal lobe and cause you to start talking funny, or another could appear in your cervical spine and make your leg go numb.

MS lesions in the spine

Some people have more lesions in their spine which primarily leads to issues with sensation, incontinence, and walking. Others have lesions in areas of the brain that make cognitive deficits their most challenging symptom. MRIs allow us to look at the area of the brain that coordinates with the person’s symptom so that we can monitor for any new damage.

What happens to the nervous system after a relapse?

When new symptoms occur, or when a relapse happens, it means that the coordinating area is under attack. The nerves in that area have their electrical signals interrupted so they either have a more difficult time performing their normal duties, or they cannot perform them at all. Over time, scar tissue forms and new research is showing that the nerves can even heal to some extent. The brain also finds ways to work around and compensate for the damage so that some function can be restored. Much like building a bridge over a river, this process takes time and effort which is why it can take months to recover from a big relapse.

Most people with MS experience symptoms even in remission

The majority of people living with relapsing-remitting MS have symptoms even in times of remission because our nervous system hasn’t completely compensated for past damage. Additionally, most of us have symptoms that wax and wane, which is what causes those “bad days” that we all know so well. There are several factors involved in these bad days including dehydration, lack of sleep, stress, extremes in temperatures, and illnesses. All of these things make it harder for even normal nerves to conduct electrical signals, and for nerves already damaged by MS, it’s like adding insult to injury.

It’s pretty miraculous what our bodies go through, and all things considered, they put up one heck of a fight. I hope you learned something from this series, and comment below if you have any questions!

This article was part of a longer piece originally published in 2014, and it was revised and reformatted in 2020.

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