To find the best treatment for multiple sclerosis, you’ll need to sort out the myths from the facts.
The science and treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS) has come a long way over the past few decades. Currently there are 16 drugs approved for treating and managing MS, with even more in development, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS). Yet despite these advances, some myths and misconceptions about MS continue to persist.
To find the right MS treatment for you, it’s important to separate the myths from the facts. Although the disease still isn’t curable, “people with MS can have good quality of life going forward,” says Vijayshree Yadav, MD, an assistant professor in the neurology department and clinical director of the Oregon Health and Science University MS Center in Portland. Consider these 7 common myths about MS:
Myth #1: MS is a prime-of-life disease. Although people diagnosed with MS are 20 to 40 years old on average, the disease can occur in both children and older adults, according to the Multiple Sclerosis Trust. “Pediatric MS centers often take care of children less than 10 years of age,” says Barry Singer, MD, a neurologist at Missouri Baptist Medical Center in St. Louis and director of the MS Center for Innovations in Care. And occasionally the first symptoms of MS don’t occur until people are in their sixties or seventies, he says.
Myth #2: MS always causes significant physical disabilities. Most people with MS don’t become significantly physically disabled. “Many people with MS have mild disabilities that may interfere with certain aspects of their day, but they’re still very active with family life, friends, and work,” Dr. Singer says. And with disease-modifying therapies, it’s possible to reduce new relapses, new disease activity, and the likelihood of disability progression, Dr. Yadav says.
Myth #3: MS is the same for everyone. Because MS can attack different areas of the brain, spinal cord, or optic nerves, symptoms can vary from person-to-person, Singer says. While some people have very mild MS, for others it’s more aggressive.
Usually, however, people with MS will experience neurological symptoms for days or months, followed by quiet periods when these symptoms go away either partially or completely. This is known as relapsing-remitting MS, the most common form of the disease, affecting 85 percent of people with MS, according to the NMSS.
Myth #4: Treatment isn’t needed for milder cases of MS. People with mild MS should consider treatment. A study published in December 2013 in the journal Acta Neuropathologica Communications supported early treatment for the prevention of long-term nerve cell damage.
The best way to keep MS mild is with early therapy, Singer says. Even if you don’t have any obvious symptoms, there can be silent damage occurring in the brain and spinal cord, he says. “Many people living with MS lose the opportunity to control their disease when they’re younger, which leads to progressive disability later in life.”
Myth #5: Women with MS can’t have children. Many women are diagnosed with MS in their child-bearing years. If you become pregnant, it won’t affect the course of your disease in the short or long term, according to the Multiple Sclerosis Trust. Just be sure to talk to your doctor about whether you should stop certain medications or not while you’re pregnant or if you breastfeed. (And although MS isn’t inherited directly, your children may be at increased risk for developing the disease.)
Myth #6: MS won’t cause pain. Years ago, doctors told their newly diagnosed MS patients that the condition wasn’t going to cause them pain, says Dennis Bourdette, MD, chair of the neurology department and director of the Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology Center at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. However, up to two-thirds of people with MS do report pain, according to the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation in London. The most common sources are headaches, burning pain in the extremities, back pain, and “pulling” pain during spasms. Talk to your doctor about medications you can take to ease the discomfort.
Myth #7: MS relapses don’t affect cognitive dysfunction. An MS relapse can sometimes interfere with your ability to think clearly or find the right words, Singer says. About half of all people with MS have chronic short-term memory loss or multi-tasking problems. Occupational therapy, workplace accommodations, and organizational skills can help you cope, he says.