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Christina Applegate and Selma Blair shine a light on MS diagnosis and treatment

December 23, 2022

If you watched the latest seasons of Dead to Me or Dancing with the Stars, you saw two well-known actors powering through the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Christina Applegate and Selma Blair continued working even as the disease made performing increasingly difficult.

The two women represent perseverance, but they also highlight the challenges — and advances — in diagnosing and treating a neurological condition whose cause remains a mystery. 

Two Celebrities Diagnosed

Before her turn as a tightly wound real estate agent on the dramedy Dead to Me, Applegate was known for her roles in Bad Moms and Married … with Children. She was diagnosed with MS in August 2021 as production for the final season of Dead was underway. But Applegate insisted she wanted to complete the series, even though she faced significant physical hurdles.

Blair, a TV and film actor who appeared in the Hellboy movies, was diagnosed with MS in 2018. After a final waltz with her partner, Blair had to withdraw from Dancing with the Stars in October because of her condition, though she returned for another dance in November’s season finale.

First Signs of MS

Both Applegate and Blair experienced symptoms, such as numbness and tingling in the extremities, years before they made the connection to MS.

Multiple sclerosis is a disease in which the immune system attacks the part of the central nervous system called myelin — the protective coating around nerve fibers — which disrupts the brain’s ability to process signals. The disease is more likely to be found in women than men, and in younger people. An estimated 1 million Americans are living with the disease. 

The initial signs of MS vary from person to person, but they sometimes start with a painful inflammation of the optic nerve called optic neuritis, which also can cause blurred vision. 

Other early signs of MS include:

  • Weakness that makes once simple tasks harder to do 
  • A tingling or loss of feeling in the hands that might cause you to fumble or drop objects 
  • A loss of coordination while walking
  • MS hug, which is a feeling that your torso is being squeezed
  • A general feeling of fatigue
  • A general feeling of fatigue when accompanied by other symptoms of weakness or vision loss
  • Dragging a foot or leg

Diagnosing MS

It’s not unusual for people with MS to connect their symptoms to other, less serious conditions. Weakness or pain in the hands, for example, might be attributed to carpal tunnel syndrome. Other pain caused by MS might be mistakenly connected to a pinched nerve from sleeping in the wrong position. People sometimes live for years with MS before they are finally diagnosed.

One of the key signs that a symptom might be caused by MS is the way it progresses, and then diminishes. For instance, it’s not unusual to feel some numbness or tingling in part of your body that goes away in a few hours or a day. With MS, those symptoms are likely to get worse over time, linger for weeks, and then go away for long periods of time before returning.

Another tipoff is if those symptoms are showing up in someone who’s in their 20s, 30s or 40s.

The tools for diagnosing MS have improved. It used to require multiple MRIs to compare changes over time. Today, doctors can make a diagnosis based on a single MRI of the brain and spinal cord.

Hope Through Better Treatments

The reason it’s so important to understand the symptoms of MS is because treatments are far more effective if the disease is discovered early.

There’s no cure for MS, but today’s treatments can dramatically slow the disease’s progress and allow you to live a near normal life. However, there’s no way to undo the damage that MS does to the nervous system.

In addition to medication, rehabilitation plays a significant role. Occupational therapists work closely with neurologists to develop a plan that helps you with everyday skills at work and home. An OT can help with arm and hand function, perception skills, coordination, arm strength and mobility.

It’s also important to assess your diet and health routines to complement medical and physical therapies to treat their MS.

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