Multiple Sclerosis Center serves a region in need

March 07, 2018
  • The Swedish MS Center strives to help MS patients gain comprehensive wellness
  • The Pacific Northwest has high rates of MS for reasons not fully understood
  • Swedish continues to lead in MS research

The Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Center at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle, Washington receives patients from all over the world wanting to confirm their MS diagnosis or seeking ways to manage their symptoms and stay connected to the things they enjoy in life. 

The leading theories of what puts a person at risk of MS involve childhood viruses and where the person grew up before age 15. Northern regions of the world in general have historically had higher rates of MS, but attempts to find the reason why have so far failed to yield an explanation. Moreover, the Pacific Northwest region surrounding the MS Center is believed to have one of the highest rates of multiple sclerosis in the world. Dr. James Bowen, medical director of the MS Center, and many others, including the members of the National MS Society of the Pacific Northwest, have explored whether aspects of northern latitudes such as the reduced amount of sunlight may account for the higher rate of MS. The research continues as finding a cause might help in finding a cure in the future.

The pursuit of comprehensive wellness for MS patients

The Swedish MS Center may be the most all-inclusive in the U.S. Dr. Bowen says one of the primary goals of the center is to help MS patients minimize and avoid MS attacks. He adds: “The Swedish MS Center is different in that we focus on comprehensive —physical, emotional, and social—wellness for our patients. Why? Because in its severest attacks on the nervous system, MS is a hard disease to have. It is difficult for the patients, and it is difficult for their loved ones.”

Research is a part of the center’s commitment to excellence. “Swedish has one of the leading research centers for MS and is on the leading edge of treatments to help patients in any way we can,” says Dr. Bowen.

Dr. Bowen also distinguishes the Swedish MS Center in this way: “In addition to expert medical care and research, we try to have programs that keep people involved in activities to enhance their quality of life and return them to their ‘former selves.’ This includes physical therapy, occupational therapy, physical medicine, and rehab--which incorporate an exercise gym, Pilates and yoga classes--art programs, music, outdoor activities, theater, literature, quarterly roadshows, a summer barbecue, and a ridiculously fun skiing event. That event started when one of our patients said, ‘I used to ski before MS. I’d really be happy if I could ski again.’ We said, ‘Let’s see if we can make that happen.’ And we did.”

What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the nervous system that affects the brain, eyes and spinal cord. The name “sclerosis” means hardening in Greek. In MS, multiple areas of the brain are hardened by scars resulting from attacks by the body’s immune system on the nervous system. 

Each patient has a unique set of symptoms and course of their disease, which typically onsets between the ages of 20 and 50. Depending on which parts of the nervous system are involved, symptoms include weakness, spasticity, sensory loss, odd sensory sensations, vision changes, coordination changes, bowel/bladder problems, cognitive change, and fatigue. The effects may last for different amounts of time.

There is no known way to prevent this disease right now, and no lifestyle change has been shown to impact whether someone gets MS or the progression of the disease. The Swedish MS Center encourages patients to adopt healthy lifestyles, including exercise, eating healthy foods, etc., but these lifestyle choices do not change the underlying disease; they only change how healthy patients are to start. However, medications called disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) have recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and show great promise in the treatment of both relapsing MS and progressive MS. 

Because MS has more symptoms than many other diseases, and because there is no single test for it, it is often difficult to diagnose. Today, MS is diagnosed largely by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). However, there are can be false positives from MRI readings, which is why people often travel to the Swedish MS Center for confirmation. 

The demographics of MS have changed

Around 75% of MS patients are female, but 100 years ago it was 75% male, with women surpassing men around 1960. Researchers have theories, but there is no definite reason for the switchover, and the higher rate in the Pacific Northwest remains almost as much a mystery as the disease itself.

The National MS Society report presented at an October 2017, meeting of the European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ECTRIMS) estimates that one million people in the U.S. have the disease, twice the previously reported number. The reason for the big jump may be that there is currently no government requirement to report or track MS. However, the National MS Society is encouraging Medicare, Medicaid, Veteran’s Health Administration and private insurers to provide scientifically sound reports of MS diagnoses in America. The goal is to achieve more accurate numbers to attract funding for research to treat, and come closer to a cure, for the disease. 

“Everyone living with MS faces enormous challenges,” says Dr. Bowen, “and what they need in addition to medical treatment is support in putting the emotional and physical fabric of their life together again. The MS Center makes it a priority to do this in a welcoming setting that builds community and does its best to make people whole again.”

A diagnosis of MS does not mean the future is bleak. Watch this video to find out why some of our patients call the Swedish MS Center “a second home.” Learn how the MS Center’s Adventure Program brings fun, educational, and challenging activities to people with MS.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.