“Dead to Me” star Christina Applegate announced on Twitter on Tuesday that she has multiple sclerosis, aka MS.

“Hi friends. A few months ago I was diagnosed with MS. It’s been a strange journey. But I have been so supported by people that I know who also have this condition,” Applegate wrote. “It’s been a tough road. But as we all know, the road keeps going. Unless some asshole blocks it.”

After an outpouring of support from fans, Applegate, 49, later asked for privacy, writing “As one of my friends that has MS said ‘we wake up and take the indicated action.’ And that’s what I do. So now I ask for privacy. As I go through this thing.”

So what is MS, and how is it treated? 

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, potentially disabling disease of the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. MS is thought to be an immune-mediated disorder, where the immune system incorrectly attacks healthy tissue in the central nervous system. This leads to nerve damage that interferes with communication between the brain and the rest of the body. And this can result in losing the ability to walk, or paralysis.

Applegate is not alone. Nearly 1 million people are living with MS in the U.S., and the disease affects roughly 2.3 million people worldwide. Other celebrities living with MS include Selma Blair, Joan Didion and Jack Osbourne.

Symptoms vary widely depending on the amount of nerve damage, according to the Mayo Clinic. “Some people with severe MS may lose the ability to walk independently or at all, while others may experience long periods of remission without any new symptoms.”

The most common MS symptoms, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, are:

Fatigue

Numbness and tingling

Blurred vision

Double vision

Weakness

Poor coordination

Imbalance

Pain

Depression

Problems with memory and concentration

Less commonly, MS may cause tremor, paralysis and blindness. 

It can also take a devastating financial toll. The estimated total cost of MS over a lifetime is $4.1 million, according to a 2016 study published in The American Journal of Managed Care, making it the second-ranked chronic condition, behind congestive heart failure, in direct all-cause medical costs.

What’s more, MS costs $28 billion annually for the entire U.S., according to health care company Optum, when taking the cost of treatment and lost productivity at work into account.

And some people appear to be at higher risk than others. White people, particularly of Northern European descent, are most at risk for MS, as are those with a family history of the disease. Other risk factors include low vitamin D levels, smoking, and having had other certain viral infections, like the Epstein-Barr virus. 

Women are more than two to three times as likely to have relapsing-remitting MS, which is characterized by periods of symptoms, followed by periods of full or partial recovery and no disease progression between attacks.

Diagnosing MS has been historically challenging, as early symptoms can be ignored or thought to be a different disease affecting the central nervous system. Early detection and treatment is important, because studies have shown the best chance for reducing disability occurs in the early stages of the disease.

There is no cure for MS, but there are FDA-approved medications that have been shown to slow the progression of the disease and reduce the number of relapses. There are also therapeutic drugs that help with symptom management. Drugs like Biogen’s
BIIB,
-0.39%

Avonex and Teva’s
TEVA,
+1.44%

Copaxone  can “reduce the number of relapses, delay progression of disability, and limit new disease activity,” the National Multiple Sclerosis Society says.

Advancements in treatment have increased life expectancy for MS, though it’s still roughly seven years less than the average population. However, complications from the disease are either preventable or managable. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society says two-thirds of people with MS maintain the ability to walk, and people often continue to work long after their diagnosis.

For more information, call 1-800-344-4867 or visit NationalMSSociety.org.

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