Michael Williamson was 16 years old when he noticed a few odd cramps one day at a cross-country track meet. His coach told him to run them out. A day or so later, he woke up paralyzed from the waist down.
After a lot of testing and poking and prodding, Williamson was told he had something called transverse myelitis. "I saw a lot of specialists, but no one mentioned MS," says Williamson, now 27 and the owner of an adventure travel company in Colorado.
When guitar picker Clay Walker lost coordination in his right hand while playing basketball with friends in 1996, the Texan was justifiably nervous. "At first I was kind of laughing about it," he recalls. "But then I started having double vision and dizziness, and I couldn't stand up. And I realized, whoa, this is pretty serious." Walker went straight to a doctor, who diagnosed the chart-topping country singer with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic neurological disorder that...
If Williamson had his first symptoms today, he would likely start a disease-modifying drug right away. Doctors tend to diagnose MS more quickly than before.
Each time you have symptoms, it’s called a flare-up, relapse, or attack. Doctors used to wait for a second bout to be sure you have MS. Since 2010, though, doctors may diagnose MS after the first flare if both of these are true:
Symptoms of MS last for at least 24 hours. They could be as dramatic as Williamson’s paralysis, or more subtle, like an arm or leg with numbness that doesn't go away when you shake it out. A sudden blind spot or blurry vision in one eye can be a symptom, too. (Within 1 to 2 weeks, vision often returns to normal.)
An MRI shows changes in the brain. In MS, your system goes awry and attacks the tough sheath around the nerves of your brain and spine, called myelin. An MRI scan can show early damage here.
That means you and your doctor can start fighting MS sooner than in the past.
Hopes and Benefits of Prompt Treatment
Researchers aren’t sure yet whether MS drugs will change the ups and downs of the illness over the long run. Most people do not become severely disabled. In a smaller group who may face a disability, could early use of drugs keep someone out of a wheelchair 10 years from now?
"That's still uncertain," says Mark Keegan, MD, a Mayo Clinic neurologist. "There are some ongoing studies that might tell us more, but it's a hard question to answer."