Multiple sclerosis remains a mysterious disease. This is because MS happens for no obvious reason; affects more often young healthy women, but also people of all ages and both sexes; causes vision problems, numbness, balance trouble, weakness and paralysis, but also can affect the nervous system anywhere in the eyes, brain, and spinal cord; and can come and then go away, or can reoccur, progress, become unrelenting, and severely disabling.

This lack of a consistent pattern makes it no surprise that MS has been viewed with mystery and superstition throughout time, and the variable nature of the disease makes it ripe for snake-oil salesmen selling false hope and phony cures.

In her book Legwork: An Inspiring Journey Through a Chronic Illness, Ellen Burstein MacFarlane writes about how desperate and vulnerable she was as MS caused progressive weakness, balance problems, and deteriorating judgment. During this terrible time, she read about a well credentialed vascular surgeon claiming miraculous success in treating neurologic diseases.

When she sought him out he promised her not only remission but a cure… to the tune of $100,000 with $50,000 up front. Of course it didn’t work and her disease progressed. The warning in her book is, “While there are honest and honorable people who offer (somewhat effective) medical treatments, there are too many charlatans who will prey on your desperation to be cured of MS. Please be careful!”

In the 30’s, scientists learned about the insulation-like material that covers nerves called myelin, like the plastic covering of an electric-extension cord. They discovered that by injecting concentrates of myelin into rats, they caused the rat immune systems to attack the eyes, brains, and spinal cords resulting in what looks just like MS implying that MS is an auto-immune system condition.

There is also scientific support for thinking that a viral infection of some kind triggers this ball rolling in genetically susceptible individuals. Still, with all the work that has been, and is being done to understand MS, as of yet we don’t really know the cause and why it’s so variable in different individuals.

Daily we are learning more about the immune system, and this has brought a level of some limited success in treating MS. Much more needs to be done, however there is room for great hope for this mysterious disease.

Don’t forget, there will always be charlatans who pray on desperate people. Please be careful.

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To hear more from Dr. Holm, visit his website, On Call with the Prairie Doc is produced by the Healing Words Foundation in association with the South Dakota State University journalism department and airs Thursdays on South Dakota Public Broadcasting Television at 7 p.m. CT, 6 p.m. MT, and streams live at

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