Does Where You Live Affect Your MS Risks?

A stethoscope wrapped around a globeDoctors still don’t understand what causes multiple sclerosis, but there are interesting data that suggest that genetics, a person’s environment, and possibly even a virus may play a role.

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How Does the Environment Affect a Person’s Risk of Multiple Sclerosis?

Epidemiological data show several interesting trends regarding multiple sclerosis:

  • Different populations and ethnic groups have a markedly different prevalence of MS. The disease is especially common in Scotland, Scandinavia, and throughout northern Europe. In the U.S. the prevalence of MS is higher in whites than in other racial groups.
  • Studies show that MS is more common in certain parts of the world, but if you move from an area with higher risk to one of lower risk, you acquire the risk of your new home if the move occurs prior to adolescence. Such data suggest that exposure to some environmental agent encountered before puberty may predispose a person to MS.
  • Moreover, MS is a disease of temperate climates. In both hemispheres, its prevalence increases with distance from the equator.

Also there have been “epidemics” of MS — for example, the group of people living off the coast of Denmark after WWII, suggesting an environmental cause.

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How Does A Doctor Test For Multiple Sclerosis?

A doctor pressing a stethoscope against his male patient's backTo diagnose multiple sclerosis, doctors will evaluate you, review your medical history and review your symptoms. Doctors will also conduct a physical examination. Doctors may order several tests to diagnose multiple sclerosis and rule out other conditions that may have similar signs and symptoms.

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Blood tests
Analysis of your blood can help rule out some infectious or inflammatory diseases that have symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis.

Spinal tap (lumbar puncture)
In this procedure, a doctor or nurse inserts a needle into your lower back to remove a small amount of spinal fluid for laboratory analysis. Doctors test the fluid for abnormalities associated with multiple sclerosis, such as abnormal levels of white blood cells or proteins.

This procedure also can help rule out viral infections and other conditions that can cause neurological symptoms similar to those of multiple sclerosis.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
An MRI uses powerful magnets and radio waves to produce detailed images of your brain, spinal cord and other areas of your body. An MRI can reveal lesions, which may appear due to myelin loss in your brain and spinal cord. However, these types of lesions also can be caused by rare conditions, such as lupus, or even common conditions such as migraine and diabetes. The presence of these lesions isn’t definitive proof that you have multiple sclerosis.

Doctors may inject a dye into a blood vessel that may help highlight “active” lesions. This helps doctors know whether your disease is in an active phase, even if no symptoms are present.

Evoked potential test
This test measures electrical signals sent by your brain in response to stimuli. An evoked potential test may use visual stimuli or electrical stimuli in which short electrical impulses are applied to your legs or arms. This test can help detect lesions or nerve damage in your optic nerves, brainstem.