MURRAY — Multiple sclerosis is a disorder that turns your auto-immune system against you, but an estimated 30,000 Utahns are currently learning to live whole and fulfilling lives after being diagnosed with the condition.

To help raise awareness for National MS Awareness Month, Tina Gomez, who has lived with multiple sclerosis for decades, agreed to share her experiences with the condition on Friday at the Intermountain Gardner Transformation Center in Murray.

“I was 27 when I was diagnosed with MS and I had a 2-year-old at the time — it was overwhelming,” said Gomez, a Utah native who has been living with the disease for 29 years.

There are more than 1 million patients with the disease in the U.S., but doctors are investigating why Utah has one of the highest incidence rates of multiple sclerosis in the country.

While the symptoms and manifestation of multiple sclerosis in a patient can vary widely, fatigue, numbness, issues with mobility and issues concerning cognitive ability or clarity are among the most common symptoms that patients have to deal with daily.

According to Gomez, this can make it difficult to lead a normal life and make everyday tasks more challenging. However, patients like Gomez want to remind those diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that they can still be proactive and positive about their diagnosis.

“When I was first diagnosed, I was really angry — it’s a hard disease to deal with because every day is different,” Gomez explained. “I think that finding a good therapist is very helpful because it’s nice to talk about it with a third party not related to family or friends.”

Gomez, whose first medication for treating her multiple sclerosis took the form of a daily, self-administered steroid injection, explained that the treatments have become increasingly less invasive over recent years. The medication she is currently using to keep her symptoms at bay only requires that she get an IV transfusion every 36 days.

Dr. Timothy West, Intermountain Health’s lead physician for multiple sclerosis, explained that there are likely many factors in the cause of multiple sclerosis. Data shows that those who are born further away from the equator and, as a result, are likely to get less daily vitamin D are more likely to be diagnosed with the illness. He added that genetic predisposition may also play a factor, and that those with northern European ancestry have higher rates of multiple sclerosis when compared to other ethnicities.

While health care professionals at Intermountain Health are still conducting studies and doing research to explain just exactly why multiple sclerosis seems to be so prevalent in the Beehive State, West hypothesizes that it may have something to do with the state’s climate and high elevation. But he agrees that there is still more work to be done before they can fully explain the high numbers.

“If you have a new neurologic symptom that hasn’t gone away in a day, go get checked out,” West said, explaining that multiple sclerosis symptoms will go away and return in a way that can convince patients that there’s nothing wrong with them at all. He adds that those with a family history of auto-immune disorders should be especially vigilant when it comes to any neurologic symptoms and should get their vitamin D levels tested when they visit the doctor.

Additionally, it is important to recognize that women are three times more likely to contract multiple sclerosis than men. Although the reason for this is currently unknown, West hypothesizes that it might have something to do with the change in hormones after puberty since pediatric multiple sclerosis seems to affect girls and boys equally.

Both West and Gomez agree that finding the right neurologist and the right medication is the most important factor to take care of for those who have been diagnosed. The wide array of treatments for multiple sclerosis that are now available are designed to target the symptoms of individual patients, making finding the right medication for each patient crucial to maximizing their quality of life.

“Most of the time, MS makes your life harder, it’s the difference between being able to walk to work and having to use a wheelchair. The whole idea with treating MS now is to find a way to keep patients in their world and keep their dreams alive,” West said.

According to West, who has been a practicing neurologist for 14 years, prevention is key to minimizing the amount of damage that multiple sclerosis can cause in a patient. But, when the condition is caught early and is treated with the right medicine to prevent future attacks or lesions, major disability can almost always be avoided.

“We’re prescribing medicine and treatments that prevent the attacks and lesions that cause the disability, as evidence of that, I don’t really give out wheelchairs anymore and I used to give out a lot,” West explained. “Prevention is everything. The sooner you can get on the right medicine and stop the attacks that cause disability, the better your quality of life and future will be.”