By Laura Strom
A woman awakes after sleeping for seven hours but still feels foggy. A man gets out of bed awkwardly with concrete-heavy legs and feels like he is walking barefoot on cobblestones. Another woman has difficulty picking up her toothbrush because she has pins and needles in her fingertips. While she drives to work, she tries to determine if it is both eyes that are blurry or just one. As the day progresses, she is struck with waves of exhaustion.
Whether you have one or all of these symptoms, you want answers.
Multiple sclerosis, one of the most common neurological conditions, affects 2.3 million people worldwide and approximately 400,000 in the U.S. It’s a chronic, often progressive disease where the immune system attacks and eats away at the protective sheath around nerves in the brain and spine, leading to some or all of the symptoms above and many others. A diagnosis of MS requires a range of tests to rule out other diseases that present with similar symptoms, such as a brain tumor or Lyme disease.
For those needing a diagnosis as well as excellent treatment options, Connecticut residents are fortunate to have access to a newly launched Multiple Sclerosis Center at Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute in Southington. The center’s goal is to minimize the effects of MS on patients’ lives through care coordinated by trained MS specialists at the forefront of neurological medicine. Dr. Brian Wong, a neuroimmunologist, is responsible for launching the center. Neuroimmunology is a subspecialty within neurology that focuses on the immune system’s role in neurological diseases, such as MS. “Our group is special because we specialize in MS, so we are more comfortable using newer agents than neurologists without specific MS training.”
The center is part of the Hartford HealthCare system, allowing Dr. Wong’s team to offer not only cutting-edge neurology care but also referrals to high-quality specialists in the system who can best treat symptoms of MS — such as a urologist to treat urinary problems that can occur with the disease.
“We are giving comprehensive care, because we coordinate care with the specialists. And we are seeing some really positive outcomes,” he says.
There are two main types of MS: relapsing and remitting (the majority of MS patients present with this) and progressive. Relapsing and remitting often responds to one of about 15 different treatment options, from pills to infusions. If MS enters the progressive stage, which most patients do at some point, Dr. Wong says the available medications are more limited and not as effective. There is no cure for MS as of yet.
Though researchers still do not know what causes MS, they have seen evidence that certain lifestyle changes often improve outcomes and slow the progression of the disease.
“We have noticed that our patients who have a more active lifestyle do better,” Dr. Wong says. “And individuals who maintain a healthy weight and avoid smoking may have a reduced risk of developing the condition.”
Additionally, low vitamin D levels may increase the risk for developing MS and supplementation may decrease relapses among patients. Though more study is needed on this link, studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency is closely associated with common chronic diseases, such as tumors, diabetes and autoimmune diseases.
Though Dr. Wong says finding a cure for MS has been challenging for multiple reasons, it has been particularly tricky to find a balance between subduing the immune system from attacking the body’s own tissues and leaving it strong enough to fight viruses and other diseases. The newest medicines, however, are successfully decreasing the number of relapses, slowing progression and preventing further disability in many patients.
Dr. Wong says he is optimistic about the future for MS patients.
“It’s a really exciting time right now in the field of neurology,” he says. “There are tools available to us for patients that we just didn’t have before, and as a result, patients are seeing much better outcomes.”
To learn more about the Multiple Sclerosis Center at the Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute in Southington, click here.