Developing multiple sclerosis means dealing with a disease that stays with the patient for the rest of their lives. Because there is no cure, and it’s a neurodegenerative condition, managing the symptoms and working with a physician to slow the advancement of the progressive disease are essential to a patient’s ability to maintain independence and quality of life through the years. However, it’s also important to note that a patient with the symptoms of multiple sclerosis could actually be suffering from something else that is entirely curable.
For example, it might seem a bit strange, but a vitamin B12 deficiency easily mimics several of the major symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and it could lead to a very real scare that a patient has developed MS. In fact, because symptoms come on slower and tend to get worse with time, people with vitamin B12 deficiency might even be concerned they have developed the more serious primary progressive type of MS. How is it possible to tell them apart?
What is vitamin B12 deficiency?
A deficiency in vitamin B12 is exactly what it sounds like – a state in which the body doesn’t get enough of the vitamin, also known as cobalamin, either because the patient is not intaking enough foods that contain the vitamin or because the body doesn’t properly support its absorption. B12 is not naturally manufactured in the body, and that means humans must ingest foods that contain significant amounts.
B12 is naturally found in animal foods and products, such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and eggs. It can also be taken as a supplement or found in other products that have been specially fortified with the vitamin, including breads and milk that is made using plants. Proper amounts of B12 range, depending on age, from 0.4mcg in infants to 2.6mcg in adult women who are pregnant and breastfeeding.
Vitamin B12 deficiency and multiple sclerosis: symptoms and similarities
Multiple sclerosis is a focus of much speculation and intense research today, partly because the medical field has realized that two and a half times as many people as they previously believed have developed the disease, meaning more than one million in the United States. However, with other conditions looking very much like MS, it’s been difficult to confirm the number. Some of the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency that mirror MS include:
- Weakness of the limbs and chronic fatigue
- Lightheadedness and dizziness
- Numbness and tingling in the extremities and/or limbs
- Difficulty walking and general muscle pains or aches
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Loss of vision
- Mental deficiency, such as depression, loss of memory and other cognitive issues, and behavioral or emotional changes
However, beyond the symptoms that are so similar, there is very little about a deficiency in vitamin B12 that is like multiple sclerosis, including the fact that a deficiency can be cured.
Vitamin B12 deficiency and multiple sclerosis: conditions and differences
The conditions themselves are quite different. In multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune response causes the disease to develop, with the immune system attacking the protective coating over the central nervous system and causing interruption in proper signals as well as permanent damage to the nerves. However, the symptoms of inadequate amounts of B12 are caused by the fact that B12 is essential in the production of normal red blood cells, which carry energy and oxygen to the rest of the body. In addition, B12 is used in other bodily functions, including creating DNA and nerves.
Some of the symptoms that don’t arise with MS that are common when a patient has a B12 deficiency include:
- Pale skin or jaundice due to low red blood cell counts
- Swelling of the tongue and ulcers in the mouth
- Breathlessness, even without much exertion (this may rarely be a symptom of MS but is more often associated with other conditions)
- High temperature/fever in rare cases
- Heart palpitations or racing pulse
By contrast, MS patients might experience symptoms that someone with a B12 deficiency might not, such as bladder control problems, slurred speech (without the swollen tongue causing it), and tremors or spasms in the limbs.
Multiple sclerosis doesn’t have a cure, and it’s important to manage the disease and its symptoms, leading to less nerve damage, fewer flare ups, and slowed progression of the disease. However, getting the proper nutrition can reverse the symptoms of B12 deficiency, as long as the condition is noted early and action is taken.
MS has its own set of risk factors, which include:
- Gender – women are three times as likely as men to develop MS
- Age – most individuals diagnosed are between the ages of eighteen and forty
- Race – Caucasians are most likely to develop the disease
- Exposure – there may be a link between exposure to herpesviruses like Epstein-Barre and chickenpox and developing MS
- Vitamin D deficiency – this could also relate to a predisposed risk for MS
Those risk factors are very different for vitamin B12 deficiency, which are:
- Vegans and vegetarians who don’t consume enough eggs or dairy products
- Older people, since they tend to have more trouble absorbing B12 and need higher levels
- Those who take long term medication for acid reduction
- People taking certain diabetic medications
- People who suffer diseases that impair the gut, like Crohn’s, or who have had bariatric surgery of some sort
- Someone who is anemic
Because there is a simple solution to having a vitamin B12 deficiency, which can cause some of the same damage to the nerves as multiple sclerosis, it’s crucial to have a blood test to determine if this is a problem. That way, patients can adjust their dietary intake or add a supplement to their regimen. In addition, it’s important to determine if the patient actually has multiple sclerosis and not another condition as soon as possible, since early diagnosis and treatment lead to a much better prognosis, with greater quality of life and more independence. With either condition, a patient can easily live a normal lifespan, though it requires attention to the disease and management of the symptoms, as well as making the necessary alterations to their everyday life.