Earlier this year a new study determined that nearly 1 million people in the U.S. are living with multiple sclerosis (MS), more than doubling the previous estimate.
MS is an unpredictable, potentially disabling, disease that causes the body’s immune system to be directed against the central nervous system (nerve fibers in the optic nerve, brain and spinal cord) and if untreated can cause permanent damage and disability.
While not a fatal disease, it affects each patient differently and can cause anything from extreme fatigue to imbalance and walking difficulties, from uncontrollable tremors to incoordination or impaired vision. It can create can challenges and complications for those it affects throughout their entire lives. Most people with MS don’t develop significant physical disabilities and two-thirds of those living with the disease remain able to walk, but symptoms can vary widely from patient to patient.
The study, funded by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, updates the previous number of 400,000 which was an estimate calculated from population growth since a 1981 national study of MS prevalence. However, it doesn’t determine if more people are getting MS or if the new total comes from overall population growth, better diagnostics, the availability of disease modifying drugs or other factors.
“The numbers have changed and we live in one of the highest density MS population areas,” said Sara Qureshi, MD, a Billings Clinic neurologist who specializes in MS care. “MS care needs to be time sensitive. We are working to improve care in this region and we want to be a resource for patients and their families.”
Because of its complex nature, comprehensive and timely care for MS can play a significant role in managing not only the disease and its symptoms, but also in the day-to-day lives of those it affects.
Billings Clinic is certified as a Center for Comprehensive Multiple Sclerosis Care by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. This designation means Billings Clinic meets the highest standards of providing specialized services and health care professionals with significant MS knowledge and experience while providing and coordinating multidisciplinary care to those patients.
“When it comes to MS, it really takes a village to provide the right care,” Qureshi said. “We’ve been able to create a multi-disciplinary team here that can give our patients that care. This designation from the National MS Society means that we’ve made sure that we have the resources to treat them.”
Dr. Qureshi and Michael Bradshaw, MD, are formally trained in MS care and other rare neuroimmune disease. They work at Billings Clinic with a team of nurses, pharmacists, technicians and physical and occupational therapists to help patients treat, manage and, ideally, thrive with their condition. That includes working with other physicians, such as urology, ophthalmology and behavioral health, to help their patients.
“With our interdisciplinary team, we offer comprehensive care for persons with MS, including medications and lifestyle modifications, with the goal of decreasing or stopping disease activity and improving quality of life,” Dr. Bradshaw said.
The team at Billings Clinic also works with patients to reduce MS activity and symptoms through lifestyle modifications that patients can make in their day-to-day lives. Quitting smoking is critical as it is a powerful inflammatory stimulus to the immune system, according to Dr. Bradshaw. Controlling or minimizing other medical comorbidities, getting adequate exercise and social engagement, eating a healthful diet, avoiding processed foods are other important steps.
Additionally, Dr. Bradshaw recommends adequate vitamin D supplementation for patients and first degree relatives, especially children of persons with MS.
“First degree relatives of a person with MS have a roughly 3 to 5 percent risk of developing MS and we believe that avoiding childhood obesity, exposure to second hand smoke, exercise and adequate vitamin D supplementation decrease that risk, although any supplementation should be reviewed with the child’s pediatrician,” he said. “The use of disease modifying therapy in combination with healthful life choices decreases MS disease activity lowers the risk of disability accumulation and improves the quality of life for those with MS,” he said.
The MS program, at its heart, is “geared toward helping patients lead a healthy and normal life,” Dr. Qureshi said. That includes working to halt or slow symptoms so that they don’t worsen.
However, treating MS in a comprehensive way also means helping people outside of the hospital’s walls.
“We’re helping them navigate living with MS in this world in order to lead a fulfilling life,” Dr. Qureshi said. “That’s one of our most important goals, to help them get to their non-direct medical needs — things like working, having a family, getting an education or travelling.”
As a Partner in MS Care and Center for Comprehensive MS Care, Billings Clinic and its MS patients have streamlined access to a large database of nationwide resources through the National MS Center, including expertise, referrals, case management, informational resources and educational opportunities.
With the growing number of MS patients, having coordinated care and access to the latest resources is an important part of managing the disease.
“The prevalence is higher than we previously knew,” Dr. Bradshaw said. “If somebody has a diagnosis of MS, I encourage them to consult with a neurologist, ideally one trained to treat MS. We are available on short notice.”
Through its MS Center for Comprehensive MS Care, the team at Billings Clinic partners with patients in navigating both the medical and non-medical issues with the goal of achieving the highest level of well-being. The Center’s mission is to provide a compassionate environment for patients and assist them in navigating their journey with MS or related disorders and ultimately in leading a fulfilling life.
For more information, visit www.billingsclinic.com/ms. To schedule an appointment, call 406-238-2410. All MS Center appointments are expedited. If you already have an MS or other rare neuro-immunological disorder diagnosis, you do not need a referral to make an appointment at the MS Center.
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