George Krucik, MD, MBA
Multiple sclerosis is an incurable and progressive autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system, involving the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. According to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, multiple sclerosis affects around 450,000 people in the U.S. and Canada. It is also more common in women, Caucasians and in people living in temperate zones far from the equator. Around 5 percent of patients are diagnosed before the age of 16, while most diagnoses occur between the ages of 20 and 50. Adolescent multiple sclerosis has unique symptoms that differ from a childhood and adult onset of the disease.
Teenagers who have multiple sclerosis often have impairments in the sensory system. Because multiple sclerosis involves the degradation of the central nervous system and spinal cord, the connecting peripheral nerves are usually affected. According to the Cleveland Clinic, some of the sensory symptoms include numbness in the extremities, tingling, abnormal sensations including "pins and needles," visual disturbances and dizziness. In addition, teens with multiple sclerosis may experience difficulties with hearing, taste and smell. With adolescent patients, the symptoms often come in cycles, coming on strong, remitting and then usually a full recovery until the next relapse.
Motor and Physical Symptoms
The symptoms of multiple sclerosis during the teen years also have an effect on motor movements and other functions of the body. According to the National Pediatric MS Center, some of the motor symptoms include difficulty walking or problems with balance, difficulty with speech and swallowing, and tremors. Other physical problems may include seizures, sexual dysfunction and problems with bowel and bladder regulation. Seizures and poor coordination are most common in children with multiple sclerosis, but these symptoms will often persist throughout the adolescent years. In addition, children and teens who experience debilitating bouts of multiple sclerosis often recover more quickly due to a more resilient nervous system.
Psychosocial and Cognitive Symptoms
Teenagers with multiple sclerosis may also experience significant psychological and cognitive symptoms. These may be due to internal infections that can affect the nervous system or due to stress and fatigue from dealing with the disease. In the April 2006 issue of "Neurotherapeutics," Dr. Dorothee Chabas and associates stated that adolescents with multiple sclerosis often have difficulty with neuropsychiatric tests. This may be due to physical fatigue, emotional distress or depression. Adolescents with multiple sclerosis may feel a sense of exclusion from other teens due to physical limitations and school absences. In the May 2010 issue of "Neurological Sciences," Dr. Benedetta Goretti and associates found that adolescents with multiple sclerosis had a high rate of emotional and affective disorders. In addition, they found that multiple sclerosis negatively affected school activities, daily living activities and social relationships.