A demyelinating disease is a disease characterized by damage to the myelin sheaths which cover the nerves. Myelin acts as an electrical insulator, ensuring that impulses move quickly down the length of a nerve, and when a nerve becomes demyelinated, these impulses can slow or stop. In a sense, a demyelinating disease strips the body's wiring of its insulation, and just as a house's electrical systems would go haywire if all of the wiring was abruptly exposed, the body experiences a variety of problems as the nerves lose their protective layers of myelin.
Myelin is primarily found around the axon of a nerve. It forms as the nerve grows, creating a protective insulating layer. A number of things can cause damage to myelin, including some autoimmune diseases, Schilder's Disease, Devic's Disease, transverse myelitis, optic neuritis, fibromyalgia, and Guillain-Barre Syndrome. One of the most famous and common demyelinating diseases is multiple sclerosis (MS). The progression of the disease and the severity can vary considerably.
In the early stages, the patient may not experience that many symptoms. As the nerves are slowly stripped of myelin and lesions known as plaques develop, however, the patient can start to experience numerous neurological problems, including difficulty walking, lack of muscle control, fatigue, shooting pains, difficulty urinating, vision problems, and other issues, depending on the patient's disease, and how far it has progressed. The progress can be very gradual, creeping up on a patient rather than occurring all at once.
If anyone experiences persistent neurological problems, he or she should see a neurologist for evaluation, because neurological symptoms are serious and they need to be addressed. A neurologist can perform a number of tests to determine the patient's level of neurological function, and to start narrowing down on possible diagnoses, including demyelinating diseases. Once diagnosed, doctor and patient can explore treatment options, including physical therapy and other techniques which will help patients manage as the disease becomes more severe.
Causes for demyelinating disease are not always clear. Genetics appears to play a role, as do some infections, and environmental exposure to certain toxins. There is not necessarily anything which someone can do to reduce the risk of developing a demyelinating disease, although people who are at risk may want to consider regular neurological exams and other measures to catch the signs of disease early. Once diagnosed, it can help to know the cause, because this may alter the treatment approach, but it is more important to focus on management of the disease.