Former actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler recently opened up about living with multiple sclerosis (MS) and her decision to go public with it more than 15 years after diagnosis. She joins a long list of celebrities and public figures who have or had MS, including comedian Richard Pryor, political spouse Ann Romney, and reality television star, Jack Osbourne.
MS is a neurological disorder that affects the brain and spinal cord. With MS, the body’s immune system attacks myelin – a protective sheath around nerve fibers – and interrupts communication between the brain and the rest of the body. It is considered an autoimmune disease because of the way the body attacks itself.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, common symptoms include fatigue and weakness, numbness or tingling in the extremities, dizziness, pain, walking difficulty and even emotional changes. Diagnosing MS can be difficult as it shares many symptoms with other diseases and the symptoms can vary widely from person to person.
This is why, when Sigler was diagnosed at 20, she chose to keep her disease a secret out of fear it would harm her acting career.
“There is no cure for MS and it can be a very unpredictable disease,” says Dr. Yazen Joudeh, an internal medicine and pediatrics specialist at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill. “Many patients struggle with their diagnosis because they don’t know how it will affect their bodies in the long-term. Some people’s symptoms are quite mild and can be easily controlled with medication, but for others, it can be very debilitating.”
Sigler describes her symptoms as manageable today, though says she’s suffered flare-ups over the years that made it difficult to walk long distances. She continued to keep her disease a secret, however, because she feared that others would view her differently.
“Sometimes all I needed was like five or ten minutes to sit and recharge, but I wouldn’t ask, because I didn’t want [my coworkers] to be suspicious,” Sigler said, in an interview.
It is not known exactly what causes MS, but it is likely a variety of genetic and environmental factors. While the disease does not appear to be directly hereditary, those with close family members with MS are at increased risk of developing it, too.
To diagnosis MS, doctors typically start by ruling out other diseases, since there is no single test that can definitively diagnose MS. It can also be broken down into four types, which are categorized by the way the disease affects the patient.
“There is no need to be ashamed of having MS, though it is understandable that many feel anxiety over the uncertainty of the disease. Fortunately, it can often be managed well with medication,” saysd Dr. Joudeh. “Despite her hesitation in disclosing her illness, this young actress has shown that it’s possible to lead a healthy and successful life with MS and can now serve as a role model for others.”