In an emotional interview with host Robin Roberts—along with another interview with Vanity Fair—Selma revealed how the chronic disease has changed her life.
Despite grappling with undiagnosed MS flare-ups since the birth of her son in 2011, Selma struggled to get doctors to take her symptoms seriously. When she was finally diagnosed following an MRI in 2018—after doctors found 20 different MS-related lesions on her brain—she recalled actually feeling a sense of relief. "When I got the diagnosis I cried with some relief," she told GMA. "Like, 'Oh, good, I'll be able to do something.'"
When exactly did Selma reveal her MS diagnosis?
Selma, who is best known for starring in Cruel Intentions and Legally Blonde, took to Instagram in October 2018 to tell her fans the news, posting a photo of a recent wardrobe fitting.
In the photo, Selma calls out costume designer Alisa Swanson (who is working on Selma's wardrobe for her upcoming Netflix show Another Life), but for helping with her disability: "She carefully gets my legs in my pants, pulls my tops over my head, buttons my coats and offers her shoulder to steady myself," Selma wrote.
That all led to her divulging her diagnosis—which she received on August 16: "I have #multiplesclerosis," she wrote. “I am disabled. I fall sometimes. I drop things. My memory is foggy. And my left side is asking for directions from a broken gps. But we are doing it. And I laugh and I don’t know exactly what I will do precisely but I will do my best.”
Selma said she initially thought she had a pinched nerve—and her friend Elizabeth Berkley (yep, of Saved By The Bell) urged her to see her brother Jason Berkley, D.O., a neurologist in Los Angeles. Selma says Berkley gave her the MS diagnosis after "finding lesions on [an] MRI."
"I have had symptoms for years," Selma wrote, "but was never taken seriously until I fell down in front of [Jason Berkley] trying to sort out what I thought was a pinched nerve."
Hold on, tell me a little bit about MS.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an often disabling disease of the central nervous system, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The body's immune system attacks nerve endings in the central nervous system, per the NIH, which essentially disrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and body.
An estimated 2.3 million people are living with MS worldwide, per the National MS Society—though those numbers may be higher due to inconsistent reporting and tracking of the disease.
The most common symptom of MS is fatigue—about 80 per cent of people with MS report significant tiredness that interferes with work and home life, per the National MS Society. Other common symptoms include numbness or tingling, difficulty walking, weakness, feelings of stiffness, vision problems, dizziness, bowel problems, pain, emotional changes, and depression.
As with many chronic illnesses, MS has periods of flare-ups, or sudden worsening of symptoms or emergence of new ones, according to Amit Sachdev, MD, associate medical director for the department of neurology and ophthalmology at Michigan State University.
“A flare can happen when there's a new patch of inflammation in the brain or spine,” he explains. “A flare can look like a stroke. There's often numbness, weakness, instability, and lack of coordination.”
Of course, no two cases of MS are the same, so symptoms can present differently in each person, but flares typically last a few days. In cases where there's new damage due to inflammation, the symptoms could take up to a few months to resolve. Treatment usually includes steroids or other drugs.
What about Selma's "pinched nerve"? Can MS symptoms mimic that?
While it's not entirely clear what Selma felt when she referenced a pinched nerve, it's likely that she was experiencing some sort of numbness or tingling somewhere on her body—another common symptom of MS.
The main difference between a pinched nerve and MS symptoms, however, is that a pinched nerve causes numbness or tingling in a specific, limited area of the body, while “MS tends to cause more encompassing symptoms where, for example, an entire limb might go numb and weak or half the body," says Dr. Sachdev.
Still, it's extremely common for MS patients to write off their symptoms at first, like Selma did, says Dr. Sachdeve. “It is very tempting to ascribe early findings of MS to common disorders like strains, sprains, or pinches,” he says. “The difference is the common disorders often resolve. MS doesn't resolve and needs to be treated.” Even doctors will often misdiagnose an MS patient with a more common condition at first, he says.
Selma herself, for example, estimates that she's had the disease for quite a while: “I have probably had this incurable disease for 15 years at least," she wrote.
What about Selma's other MS symptoms? How common are they?
Extremely common. Patients with MS will see lots of the same symptoms Selma is experiencing.
“The most obvious symptoms in MS are sensory and motor,” he says, that means people with MS have a lot of trouble getting around and doing basic movements. "Common manifestations are an inability to dress, dropping items, difficulty controlling part of the body, and subsequent falls," says Dr. Sachdev. The more pronounced and bothersome those movement issues are, the more progressed the disorder has become.
Fatigue is another symptom, per the National MS Society. Selma addressed this one on Instagram: "You want to sleep. You always want to sleep."
During her interview with Robin—in which her voice noticeably shook—Selma also revealed that she has spasmodic dysphonia, which according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), is a neurological disorder affecting the voice muscles in the larynx (a.k.a. the voice box).
Typically, when you speak, air from your lungs is pushed between your vocal cords, which makes them vibrate and produce sound. But in spasmodic dysphonia, those vocal cords experience sudden, involuntary movements, or spasms, which interfere with vocal sounds.
So how is MS treated—and is there a cure?
No, there's no cure for MS. But the disease can be managed in order to slow progression, says Dr. Sachdev. There are some drugs available (like steroids) to deal with symptoms like inflammation, according to the NIH, and people can go to physical therapy and keep up with light exercise to help with their mobility.
As the disease progresses, it may eventually result in paralysis. Although, according to the National MS Society, two-thirds of people with MS will remain able to walk. MS may also decrease someone's life expectancy. Still, “there is hope that patients can remain highly functional for longer periods of time,” says Dr. Sachdev.
As for Selma, she says she's currently “in the thick of it” but wants to give others hope. “You can’t get help unless you ask,” she wrote. And while she wants everyone to know that she has MS and is okay right now, she may still need a little extra help. “If you see me, dropping crap all over the street, feel free to help me pick it up. It takes a whole day for me alone. Thank you and may we all know good days amongst the challenges,” she wrote.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.