She didn't know she had MS. Could others?

We share common multiple sclerosis symptoms as Selma Blair's new documentary is released

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Actress Selma Blair has shared her personal journey with multiple sclerosis (MS) in a new documentary, "Introducing, Selma Blair." The 49-year-old was diagnosed with the disease in 2018, and the film follows her struggles with it and the treatments she has used to help slow its progression.

Like many of the 1 million people in the United States with MS, Blair suffered with symptoms of the disease for years before her diagnosis. If you’re concerned that you could be one of them, there are some common symptoms you should know about.

What is multiple sclerosis?

MS is an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system. It's believed to be an autoimmune disease, which is to say it causes the body’s immune system to erroneously attack normal tissues – in this case, the nervous system.

Because it's a complicated disease, it can inflict a broad range of symptoms on patients. People between the ages of 20 and 40 are most commonly diagnosed with MS, although it can affect anyone.

What are some common warning signs of MS?

Blair said she knew something was amiss in February 2018, when she was walking in a New York Fashion Week show. 

“It was on that runway, with the thrill of walking in the show, that I suddenly lost feeling in my left leg,” she said in an interview with Town & Country magazine. “But I was on a runway and thinking, What do I do?”

Six months later, a magnetic resonance imaging scan revealed lesions on Blair’s brain, and her doctor diagnosed her with MS. 

Numbness or weakness in the legs, arms or one side of the body is a common symptom of what are known as discrete attacks, or relapses. Patients often recover fully from these types of attacks, and outcomes vary widely – some patients will have multiple attacks in a year, others can go many years between relapses. Additional symptoms of a relapse include visual loss in one eye, double vision, vertigo and difficulty walking.

Additionally, there are sometimes early signs that occur before typical symptoms of MS arrive, however, these symptoms occur in a variety of settings and are not specific to MS. These include:
  • Fatigue
  • Bowel and bladder issues
  • Depression

MS researchers are working hard to develop tests to diagnose MS early, but currently there is no test to diagnose MS before someone suffers an MS attack.

Talk with your doctor early about being referred to a neurologist if you notice that you are experiencing symptoms of an MS attack.

How is multiple sclerosis treated?

If you're diagnosed with MS, there are numerous treatment options that can reduce your symptoms. As with any disease, early treatment is vital.

Drugs that significantly decrease relapse rates and improve long-term prognosis are known as disease modifying therapies (DMTs), and there are more than 15 available. There's a growing body of evidence that early treatment with potent DMTs can reduce long-term disability and reduce the percentage of people that develop secondary progressive MS, a form of the disease that can be harder to treat.

Your neurologist can also prescribe specific drugs to treat MS symptoms, such as limb stiffness, pain, urinary symptoms and fatigue. 

Research at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center is also helping to find new treatments for MS patients. In the Department of Neurology, we're studying new cell therapies that could restore function for patients with MS or other neurological diseases. A study is also under way to determine how aging affects symptoms and disability in MS patients.

Ohio State also offers an MS Quality of Life clinic, where each patient receives a thorough examination of their MS symptoms and a comprehensive treatment plan to address them. These plans involve a broad interdisciplinary team of experts, including physical, occupational and speech therapists, sleep specialists, psychologists, cognitive specialists and urologists.

As for Blair, she announced in August 2021 that her MS is in remission, thanks to chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. The bone marrow stem cell transplant and chemotherapy that Blair received is still a highly experimental therapy, and clinical trials in MS are currently ongoing. This treatment is not indicated or safe for the majority of patients with MS.

Her documentary was released in theaters on Oct. 15, 2021, and on the streaming service discovery+ on Oct. 21.

Emily Harrington is a neurologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center's Neurological Institute and an assistant professor in Neurology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.