Chronic Cerebrospinal Venous Insufficiency as a Cause of Multiple Sclerosis: Controversy and Reality
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a relapsing and progressive disorder of the central nervous system. It is characterized most commonly by episodes of clinical worsening, followed by clinical improvement. Pathologically, MS is associated with focal areas of myelin destruction, inflammation, and axonal transection (“demyelinating plaques”) in the brain and spinal cord. Traditionally, MS has been considered an autoimmune disorder, with the primary pathophysiology arising from an errant immune system. Recent work has raised the possibility that MS is not caused primarily by an immune abnormality but may instead arise from venous anomalies affecting the jugular and/or azygos venous systems. This condition has been called chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI). It has been proposed that CCSVI may be pathogenic in MS, causing venous back pressure and iron deposition, with a secondary immune response. Some investigators have proceeded to unblinded nonrandomized angioplasty and stenting procedures in patients with CCSVI, with anecdotal reports of symptom improvement. Because of conflicting data on the presence of CCSVI and the absence of controlled trials of CCSVI intervention, the current standard of clinical care is neither to evaluate multiple sclerosis (MS) patients for CCSVI anomalies, nor to intervene with procedures to alter such anomalies. There is intense interest and ongoing work to evaluate the presence of venous anomalies in MS patients as well as in normal controls and patients with other neurologic conditions; to characterize such anomalies, if present; and to further understand whether the concept of a “backpressure” pathology is borne out by the evidence. If CCSVI is indeed a pathogenic mechanism for some subset of the MS population, this would dramatically change the focus of attention for therapeutic endeavors and monitoring for this population and would bring MS therapeutics firmly into the area of vascular intervention. On the other hand, the history of MS research contains many novel and potentially paradigm-shifting ideas that were later disproved by other investigators.