People who had a concussion at a young age have a greater risk of developing MS.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition that causes damage to the substance that covers nerve cells. This interrupts normal communication between nerves, leading to problems with movement, speech, and other functions. We don’t know what causes MS but we think it is an autoimmune disease.
What is an autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune diseases develop when a person’s immune system goes after its own tissues and organs. Autoimmune disease can affect all parts of the body. For example:
- Type 1 diabetes. This is the type that usually affects kids and develops when abnormal antibodies attack certain cells in the pancreas, leaving it unable to produce enough insulin, so the body can’t regulate blood sugar properly
- Rheumatoid arthritis. Multiple joints and other organs become inflamed; the cause is unknown, but the presence of autoantibodies (antibodies directed against proteins in healthy tissues) and other abnormal immune function suggest it is an autoimmune disorder.
- Pernicious anemia. In this condition, anemia develops when the immune system produces antibodies that prevent absorption of vitamin B12 from food.
And these are just a few. Autoimmune conditions are especially scary because the immune system goes rogue for no apparent reason. These are favorite conditions of medical television and movies, such as House, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Big Sick.
What triggers autoimmune diseases?
The most common explanation is that an affected person’s immune system, partly due to the genes they inherited, is primed to react abnormally to some trigger, such as an infection, an environmental exposure (like cigarette smoke), or some other factor. For most autoimmune diseases, we can’t easily figure out what triggers them. If we could, we might be able to prevent them.
Are there known triggers for MS?
Experts suspect a number of potential triggers or risk factors for MS. For example, some believe that it’s due to a chronic infection (although it’s unclear exactly which infection). Others believe that it’s primarily a genetic neurological disease. These theories challenge the idea that MS is truly an autoimmune disease.
Some studies suggest that head injuries might be a risk factor for MS. If true, it raises important questions about how MS develops and how it might be prevented. On the other hand, it’s not an easy thing to study because researchers would never intentionally cause head injuries to see if they cause MS. Another way to study this question is to enroll people who already have MS, look back at whether they had concussions, and then compare them with similar people who don’t have MS.
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