Multiple sclerosis is both an autoimmune disease and a progressive neurodegenerative disease. As such, it is a permanent condition that doesn’t have a cure and can lead to serious complications and long-term disability if not properly diagnosed and managed. It’s one of several diseases that a patient can develop that share a group of symptoms, with each patient having a unique experience and making it difficult for physicians to accurately diagnose each disease and researchers to find a cure.
Vasculitis is one such disease, which comes in many forms with an even broader range of symptoms than MS, depending on the area of the body that is affected by the disease. Because there is no definition of a cause for either of these immune reactions, and because the way symptoms present in each patient varies so greatly, it’s been impossible so far to find a cure for either. However, both vasculitis and multiple sclerosis are treatable, and knowing the difference can help determine the proper treatment for a particular patient, improving the prognosis.
What is vasculitis?
Vasculitis is a broad term that refers to a group of diseases in which there is inflammation in the blood vessels. That inflammation can cause the blood vessels to react in a number of ways, including narrowing to the point of complete blockage of blood flow, thickening, weakening, expanding, and even getting to the point where they bulge (called an aneurism) and burst, which can be fatal, depending on the location.
Part of the reason it’s so difficult to cure vasculitis is because there are so many types. Most of them are rare, and they can be acute (with a sudden onset) or chronic (a long term or recurring condition). Vasculitis can affect any single organ or multiple parts of the body at the same time. While some types of vasculitis are more common in a specific demographic, it can be diagnosed in anyone of any age or race. Also, depending on the type of vasculitis and what organs it effects, symptoms may mirror certain aspects of multiple sclerosis.
Vasculitis and multiple sclerosis: symptoms and similarities
Both multiple sclerosis and vasculitis are autoimmune diseases, where the immune system has an unusual reaction to a particular substance in the body, which causes a detrimental attack to that substance. They both cause patients to suffer pain and other symptoms based on inflammation, which can damage any body part when persistent.
Some of the symptoms that initially point to both diseases include:
- Severe and persistent headache
- Extreme and unyielding fatigue
- General aches and pains throughout the body
- Numbness, burning, or tingling in the limbs or face
- Unexplained weakness, especially in the legs
- Eye pain, especially with movement
- Blurred and double vision
In both vasculitis and multiple sclerosis, smoking is a risk factor for development, and continuing to smoke after diagnosis can exacerbate symptoms. In addition, having another autoimmune condition, like rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, type 1 diabetes, and lupus can increase the risk of developing one of these diseases. In many cases, MS and vasculitis may be treated with corticosteroids, which help reduce and control inflammation. For both, immunosuppressants are an option, as well as some kinds of chemotherapy. While both MS and vasculitis can result in permanent damage, they also both have a good prognosis with early detection, diagnosis, and treatment, leading to a fairly normal life with a standard life expectancy.
Vasculitis and multiple sclerosis: conditions and differences
Of course, not everything lines up with vasculitis and multiple sclerosis. For example, while both are autoimmune disorders that result in inflammation, MS attacks the protective coating on the central nervous system (CNS), while vasculitis attacks the blood vessels. Also, due to the area it attacks, evidence of MS can only be found in the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerve. In vasculitis, the inflammation of the blood vessels can be found in any area of the body.
There are several symptoms that patients experience with various types of vasculitis that aren’t present in MS, such as:
- Weight loss
- Night sweats
- Skin rashes
- Ulcers in the mouth or genital region
- Jaw pain
- Abdominal pain
- Blood in the urine or stool
- High blood pressure
- Coughing up blood
By contrast, a patient with MS is more likely to experience symptoms like:
- Dizziness and vertigo
- Difficulty walking or speaking
- Cognitive issues
- Changes in behavior and mood
- Tremors and spasms in the limbs, especially the legs
While there is some linking between risk of developing multiple sclerosis and exposure to certain types of infections (such as chickenpox and Epstein-Barre, which causes mononucleosis), it isn’t linked to chronic hepatitis B or C infections as vasculitis is. In addition, vasculitis may be caused by a reaction to certain types of drugs, which is not the case with MS. Some medications available for each are also exclusive to each disease. For example, beta interferon and several disease modifying therapies (DMTs) are available to treat MS. On the other hand, methotrexate and Cytoxin, as well as tocilizumab are used in treating vasculitis but are not prescribed for multiple sclerosis.
The prognosis is different for the two diseases as well. While there is no cure for either, patients with vasculitis are sometimes able to slowly withdraw from medication without any recurrence of the disease. In many cases, remissions of the condition are far longer than in multiple sclerosis. In MS, patients must continue treatments throughout the rest of their lives. However, when the disease is identified and treated early, they often have normal lifespans and experience high quality of life and normal amounts of independence.
For both vasculitis and multiple sclerosis, the key to a good outlook for the future is to get the condition diagnosed early and treat it aggressively. Keeping in touch with the managing doctor is crucial to noting any changes in the disease and working to improve the treatment regimen and identify new types of therapy that can help reduce relapses and control symptoms. While it may seem like a hassle to go through the battery of tests required to diagnose either disease, it’s necessary so that other issues can be eliminated as a source of symptoms, and various medications can assist with independence and happiness.