Living with a chronic degenerative disease, especially one like multiple sclerosis that affects the nervous system, can be extremely difficult and terrifying. Knowing that there is no cure doesn’t make it any easier. In many cases, the disease progresses over time, damaging nerves without the ability to repair them so that the patient becomes disabled.
Multiple sclerosis: Methods of treatment
Doctors can choose from several classes of drugs to treat the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, based on severity, frequency of relapse, and the condition of the individual patient. No two cases of MS are the same, so each patient requires their own evaluation and course of action.
In some cases, prescribing high doses of corticosteroids is enough to get a patient through a relapse. These steroids can be oral or injectable, and they reduce the swelling that occurs in the central nervous system during a flare up of multiple sclerosis (or relapse). In reducing the swelling, these drugs help control the severity of symptoms and can keep the patient functioning through the relapse.
In other cases, a continuous treatment, such as an immunosuppressant, is required. These drugs work to reduce the number of immune cells that cause the autoimmune reaction to the myelin in the body, so that there are fewer relapses due to fewer chances for an attack. Also, the reduced number of attack cells means that the relapse is also less severe. These “monoclonal antibody” treatments can be oral or infusions, and they can range from daily use to every few weeks or months, depending on the type of treatment prescribed.
If all else fails, a doctor may recommend that a patient try a certain type of chemotherapy, which aims to kill the cells that create the offending antibodies in the system. Without the antibodies that attack the central nervous system, the patient is less likely to experience extreme symptoms and relapses. However, with the major side effects that come with chemo treatments, this is not a preferred method of treatment. Most doctors will first turn to beta interferon as a treatment option.
9 things to know about interferon
- Beta interferon is one of three types of interferon. Alpha interferon is a similar substance, with both of these agents produced by cells when coming into contact with a virus. Gamma interferon flags the presence of cancer and infectious agents but has proven in studies to actually worsen symptoms of MS by increasing the destruction of myelin.
- Beta interferon is an anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant. It actively supports the increased production of suppressor lymphocytes, which in turn inhibits the production of the lymphocytes that attack the nervous system. In the process, by reducing the number of offensive lymphocytes, beta interferon also reduces the inflammation that can be crippling in multiple sclerosis.
- It reduces the presence of gamma interferon. Beta 1b regulates the production of gamma interferon, which is known to exacerbate the relapse of MS symptoms and create additional difficulty in managing the disease.
- It doesn't treat all types of MS. While beta interferon has been found effective in the treatment of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis and the essential advancement of that disease, secondary progressive MS, it has not shown any promise in the treatment of primary progressive multiple sclerosis.
- It has multiple brand names. If a doctor prescribes Avonex, Betaferon, Extavia, Plegridy, or Rebif, these are all beta interferon treatments. Which type is prescribed depends on the frequency of administration, ranging from once a day to every two weeks.
- They are all injectables. Many of them come as “pens” so the patient doesn’t have to see the needles at all. All are subcutaneous, requiring only that they be injected under the skin rather than into a vein or into the muscle. Betaferon and Extavia are the most frequently administered, with injections every other day, while Plegridy is the least frequent at every two weeks.
- There are several common side effects. However, most side effects are controllable with over the counter medications like ibuprofen, and a number of the symptoms can fade over time, as the patient grows used to the treatment. Flu-like symptoms are most common, with additional complaints ranging from injection site irritation and swelling to mood swings, as well as trouble sleeping or eating. Increased irritability, sadness, and difficulty concentrating are things that may need to be discussed with a physician in order to help moderate them, since these treatments have to continue throughout the course of the disease until proven ineffective.
- Women who are pregnant should not take it. Interferon treatments can be dangerous to infants, so women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or intend to have a baby should choose another treatment option. Those who want to use beta interferon for MS should also be on birth control.
- The liver and thyroid should be checked frequently. While beta interferon is not particularly dangerous, damage could occur to one of these organs, and it’s essential to have a physician monitor for changes to the liver or thyroid throughout the therapy.
The body naturally makes beta interferon, but it doesn’t create the quantity or targeting desired to help stave off symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Using interferon to help treat the disease can reduce symptoms and the quantity of relapses and can help stave off some of the degenerative damage done by the disease to the central nervous system. The early the disease is discovered, the more likely beta interferon is to work to reduce the effects. And because it can be administered at home, it reduces the pressure on a patient to get into a clinic or doctor frequently, taking some stress off their shoulders.