Although multiple sclerosis (MS) occurs most commonly in adults, it is increasingly being diagnosed in children and teenagers. Of the 400,000 diagnosed cases of MS in the U.S., 8,000 to 10,000 are in children up to 18 years old. Neurologists think there are probably many more children with MS that have not been diagnosed.
How MS Is Different in ChildrenMultiple sclerosis may manifest itself differently in children and adults. In children, it may begin after a period of neurological symptoms called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM). For most children, the symptoms of ADEM -- including headache, delirium, lethargy, coma, seizures, stiff neck, and fever -- are temporary. But other children continue to have symptoms or experience additional symptoms that meet the criteria of MS.
MS is thought to progress more slowly in children than in adults; however, significant disability can occur at an earlier age in people whose MS begins in childhood or adolescence. The cognitive and psychological consequences of MS are likely greater in children and adolescents and may affect academic performance, self-image, and relationships with peers.
MS Symptoms in ChildrenThe symptoms of MS in children are similar to those in adults and may include:
- Problems with bladder or bowel control
- Problems with walking
- Vision changes
- Muscle spasms
- Sensory changes, tingling, or numbness
The symptoms of MS can be erratic. They may be mild or severe. They may last a long time or just a short time.
MS Treatment in ChildrenAlthough there is no cure for MS, there are several treatments that can improve life for children with the disease. Treatment of MS in children as well as adults has three main goals: to treat attacks, to prevent future attacks, and to relieve symptoms.
Treating MS Attacks in ChildrenCorticosteroid medications are used to reduce inflammation in the brain and spinal cord during attacks of MS. The main corticosteroid used for MS attacks is Solu-medrol (methylprednisolone), which is given by IV once a day for three to five days. Sometimes doctors prescribe an oral corticosteroid called prednisone for a short time following the IV medication.
Although most children tolerate corticosteroids well, for some they cause side effects, including moodiness and behavior changes, increases in blood pressure and blood sugar, and stomach irritation. Doctors can treat these problems if necessary.
If corticosteroids alone don’t bring enough improvement, other treatments, including intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) and plasma exchange, are available to treat MS attacks.
Preventing Attacks of MS
Although corticosteroids can ease MS attacks, they do not prevent them. Doctors prescribe other types of drugs for that purpose. While decreasing the number of attacks, these drugs may also slow the disease’s progression to disability.
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