This Was the First Sign Christina Applegate Had Multiple Sclerosis
Christina Applegate is opening up about her multiple sclerosis diagnosis, explaining the first signs she experienced with the illness. Applegate, 50, is speaking out about the condition in the leadup to the third and final season of her hit Netflix show Dead To Me, which debuts on November 17. The actress wants people to understand why she might look or move differently, and to help people understand more about MS in general. Applegate first shared the news about her MS in August 2021, saying, "Hi friends. A few months ago I was diagnosed with MS. It's been a strange journey. But I have been so supported by people that I know who also have this condition. It's been a tough road. But as we all know, the road keeps going."
So what exactly is MS? "Multiple sclerosis is a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the protective covering of the nerve cells in the brain, optic nerve and spinal cord, called the myelin sheath," says Oliver Tobin, MD, a neurologist specializing in multiple sclerosis at Mayo Clinic. "And this sheath is often compared to the insulation on an electrical wire. When that covering is damaged, it exposes the actual nerve fiber, which can slow or block the signals being transmitted within it. The nerve fibers themselves might also be damaged. The body can repair damage to the myelin sheath, but it's not perfect. The resulting damage leaves lesions or scars, and this is where the name comes from: multiple sclerosis, multiple scars."
"We don't know what causes MS, but there are certain factors that may increase the risk or trigger its onset," says Dr. Tobin. "So while MS can occur at any age, it mostly makes its first appearance in people between the ages of 20 and 40. Low levels of vitamin D and low exposure to sunlight, which enables our body to make vitamin D, are associated with an increased risk of developing MS. As people who have MS who have low vitamin D tend to have more severe disease. So people who are overweight are more likely to develop MS and people who have MS and are overweight tend to have more severe disease and a faster onset of progression. People who have MS and who smoke tend to have more relapses, worse progressive disease, and worse cognitive symptoms. Women are up to three times as likely as men to have relapsing-remitting MS." Here are the first signs of MS, according to Christina Applegate. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
Applegate says one of the first signs of MS she experienced was a feeling of being off-balance while filming a dance sequence for "Dead To Me", something she brushed off at the time. "I wish I had paid attention," she tells the New York Times. "But who was I to know?… There was the sense of, 'Well, let's get her some medicine so she can get better.' And there is no better. But it was good for me. I needed to process my loss of my life, my loss of that part of me. So I needed that time."
Feeling unbalanced one of the more frequently reported symptoms of MS, according to experts. "Dizziness is a common symptom of MS," says the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. "People with MS may feel off balance or lightheaded. Much less often, they have the sensation that they or their surroundings are spinning — a condition known as vertigo. These symptoms are due to lesions — damaged areas — in the complex pathways that coordinate visual, spatial and other input to the brain needed to produce and maintain equilibrium (balance). Other conditions that may cause dizziness include middle ear inflammation and benign tumors of the acoustic nerve that connects the ear and the brain. In order to effectively treat your dizziness or vertigo, it's important to know the cause."
Numbness and Tingling
Over the years, Applegate says the feeling of numbness and tingling in her extremities got worse and worse, until she was finally diagnosed with MS. Production on the show paused for five months so the actress could get treatment. "Although it's not like I came on the other side of it, like, 'Woohoo, I'm totally fine,'" she says. "Acceptance? No. I'm never going to accept this. I'm pissed."
"MS may lead to a loss of sensation in whatever area of the body corresponds with the damaged area of the brain or spinal cord," says Tatiana Scherz, MD, PhD. According to Dr. Scherz, this can result in the numbness or tingling in fingers and toes, and can range from mild to severe. Another common MS pain is known as Lhermitte's sign. "This occurs when there's a lesion on the cervical spine, the neck area of the spinal cord," says Dr. Scherz. "When the person bends their neck, there's mechanical irritation to the damaged nerve fibers, which can cause what feels like an electric shock."
Applegate experienced fatigue early on, noticing that her tennis game was being affected. It wasn't until later that she realized this was linked to having MS. At the time, she thought her struggles were down to her not "trying hard enough", so she made an effort to try harder, not knowing she had a debilitating illness which affected her stamina. The actress recently tweeted about her "new normal", posting a photo of the canes she now uses. "I have a very important ceremony coming up. This will be my first time out since diagnosed with MS. Walking sticks are now part of my new normal. Thank you @neowalksticks for these beauties. Stay tuned to see which ones make the cut for a week of stuff."
"Fatigue is the most common symptom of multiple sclerosis (MS)," says the Cleveland Clinic. "It occurs in 75 percent to 95 percent of patients with MS. Fatigue can occur at all stages of the disease. The symptom is not related to the severity or to the duration of MS. At times, fatigue interferes with function and is an important symptom to manage… One theory is that fatigue is related to the general activation of the immune system. Chemical messengers are called cytokines; these levels are higher in patients with MS and may be higher still in patients with fatigue. One way of describing this is that you may feel like you have a virus all of the time."
Applegate gained weight as a result of the MS, and wants viewers to know she is well aware of it, and that she might look different. "This is the first time anyone's going to see me the way I am," she says. "I put on 40 pounds; I can't walk without a cane. I want people to know that I am very aware of all of that." Weight gain is a common symptom of MS, experts say. "The fluid retention element of that will go away, but it can take time to shed the other weight," says Kathleen Costello, MS, ANP-BC, MSCN, vice president of programs with Can Do MS, a nonprofit organization. "Depression and other mood disorders can have a huge effect on appetite, leading people to eat more and choose foods that might not be healthy."
Costello recommends seeking the advice of a nutritionist to help combat weight gain. "You want someone who can design an affordable, healthy diet that you can prepare," Costello says. "Some universities have schools of nutrition that offer faculty/student practices where you can see a nutritionist at far less cost than one in private practice." Weight gain can lead to other health issues, so it's best to deal with it as soon as possible. "If your doctor is putting you on a new medication, talk to him or her about its effects on weight," says Michael K. Hehir, MD, associate professor of neurology at the University of Vermont in Burlington. "With steroids, for example, if you know your appetite is going to increase, you and your doctor can discuss ways to manage that side effect, such as devising an eating plan that emphasizes nutrient-rich foods that are less caloric."
Applegate can't walk the way she used to—and she's hoping that by opening up about her MS, it won't distract people from the storyline of the show. "If people hate it, if people love it, if all they can concentrate on is, 'Ooh, look at the cripple,' that's not up to me," she says. "I'm sure that people are going to be, like, 'I can't get past it.' Fine, don't get past it, then. But hopefully people can get past it and just enjoy the ride and say goodbye to these two girls."
"Understandably, many individuals with MS are initially quite reluctant to accept a walking aid and often delay going to therapy," says Patricia G. Provance, PT, MSCS. "From the standpoint of a PT, an 'attitude adjustment' is often needed. I encourage my MS patients to view ambulation aids as tools that have the potential to normalize their walking pattern. By doing so, this can result in less fatigue, improved posture and balance, less pain, more endurance, and the correct training of the walking muscles. I have witnessed dramatic improvement in patients' gait and endurance by initially using these aids for training, and later, just as needed for issues such as distance, energy conservation, and worsening symptoms during MS flare-ups."