What is multiple sclerosis? That is the big question that many Americans have been asking after the disease made headlines at both political conventions this year. Ann Romney, wife of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, spoke of having the disease at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., and first lady Michelle Obama shared her thoughts on caring for her father — who suffered from MS — with the Democrats a week later in Charlotte, N.C.  


Multiple sclerosis is caused when inflammation damages the protective covering that surrounds nerve cells. When this nerve covering — called the myelin sheath — is damaged, nerve signals slow down or stop, leading to a variety of symptoms all over the body. MS can cause damage to the nerve cells along any area of the brain, optic nerve and spinal cord, so symptoms can range from painful muscle spasms to double vision to digestive dysfunction to slurred speech.  


The big mystery is what causes MS. The prevailing theories are that the disease is caused by either a virus or a defective gene — or possibly both. And there is no known cure for multiple sclerosis. It may go into remission, but it can spring back to life at any time. Medication and physical therapy are often used to control symptoms and help sufferers maintain a "normal" quality of life.


Ann Romney was first diagnosed with MS in 1998. Thankfully, her condition has been in remission for 10 years, but she has been through crippling struggles with the disease in the past. She mentioned it at the convention to challenge the notion that she's had an easy life. “A storybook marriage?” she asked rhetorically. “No, not at all.”


Michelle Obama also knows the ins and outs of MS all too well. Her father lived with the disease for about 30 years before his death at age 66. She spoke at the convention about how her life was affected by MS. "[E]very morning, I watched my father wake up with a smile, grab his walker, prop himself up against the bathroom sink, and slowly shave and button his uniform. And when he returned home after a long day's work, my brother and I would stand at the top of the stairs to our little apartment, patiently waiting to greet him ... watching as he reached down to lift one leg, and then the other, to slowly climb his way into our arms.


Multiple sclerosis affects almost 400,000 Americans, including two very prominent Americans at the moment. Hopefully, their attention to the disease will help more Americans understand this mysterious and frustrating illness.


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