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The Impact of Demyelinating Diseases

The courses of multiple sclerosis (MS), transverse myelitis (TM) and neuromyelitis optica (NMO) can be devastating to the 2.5 million people living with them – especially children.

In all three conditions, the body’s immune system attacks the fatty protective myelin sheath that surrounds nerve fibers, the connection between the brain and the spinal cord.

As the myelin breaks down, the fibers wither away. Like a faulty string of holiday lights, the connections between brain and body flicker, failing intermittently before going dark altogether.

Patients with MS, TM and NMO face unpredictable lives as their nervous systems fail, with increasing pain and dysfunction and a progressive inability to think, speak, see, move, eat or walk. For many, work, relationships and independent living become impossible.

Learn more about multiple sclerosis, transverse myelitis and neuromyelitis optica in our Health Library.

Facts about MS, TM and NMO

  • Because sufferers tend to be young, the personal and economic impact can be staggering: A recent study estimated that $5.1 billion is lost to MS in the United States each year due to sick leave, premature retirement and loss of income.
  • Progress in research is affected by the challenge of seeing large numbers of patients at one location to analyze similarities between patients.
  • So far, treatments are limited. Some medicines can slow the disease process, but for many the progression continues, with increasing loss of function.

The Relationship Between Transverse Myelitis and Multiple Sclerosis

Despite differences in where and how often they occur, TM and MS are similar in their underlying mechanisms. In fact, 15 to 43 percent of TM patients may be diagnosed with MS at some point.

Because its course is more predictable than that of MS, TM can serve as a research model of demyelinating disease. Focusing on TM helps scientists discover more about how myelin protects the nerves and how it might be restored once it’s been damaged by the body’s immune system. 

About Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO)

  • Neuromyelitis optica is a rare demyelinating disease affecting the central nervous system.
  • Once considered a type of multiple sclerosis, NMO is now recognized as a distinct condition.
  • Neuromyelitis optica causes myelin loss in the spinal cord and the optic nerves that carry signals from the eyes to the brain. Paralysis and blindness can result.
  • Most NMO patients are children or adults in their 40s. Women are more likely to have the more common, relapsing form, marked by periodic flare-ups and some recovery in between.
  • The monophasic form of NMO is characterized by a single attack that lasts a month or more, and men are at a similar risk as women for this type.

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