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Dispelling Multiple Sclerosis Myths—Commentary

3/22/2017 Michael C. Levin, MD, Multiple Sclerosis Research Chair, Professor of Neurology, University of Saskatchewan

Though multiple sclerosis (MS) is one of the most common diseases to affect the central nervous system, the condition has certain misconceptions and outdated stereotypes.

That’s because relatively little is known about the causes of MS, and the disease affects everyone who suffers from it differently. About 10,000 new cases are diagnosed every year, and symptoms can be considerably different from person to person.

This wide variety of symptoms and experiences mean people and their loved ones often must depend on others for a personal account of what to expect, leading to many myths about the disease. By debunking some common myths, we can increase understanding about the disease and help people with MS have more informed conversations with loved ones and their doctors.

First, a quick primer on multiple sclerosis. MS is a disease in which patches of myelin (the substance that covers most nerve fibers) and underlying nerve fibers in the brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord are damaged or destroyed. It’s an autoimmune disorder, which means the immune system attacks its own body.

Physicians have identified at least four types of the disease. Within these types, MS generally falls into two broad categories:

  • Relapsing – Patients experience times with severe symptoms followed by periods of remission with few or no symptoms. This is the most common form of multiple sclerosis.
  • Progressive – Patients experience a gradual worsening of the disease with no obvious remissions or symptom-free periods.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common myths surrounding multiple sclerosis and get the real story.

Myth #1 – Everyone with multiple sclerosis will end up in a wheel chair.

Debunked. Multiple sclerosis’ progression varies greatly from person to person, but large studies have shown it takes 15 to 20 years on average for a person to go from developing the disease to needing a cane to walk. Ongoing treatment can delay this progression even more. Three out of four people with multiple sclerosis never need a wheelchair. For about 40 percent, normal activities are not disrupted.

Myth #2 – Women with multiple sclerosis should not get pregnant.

Debunked. In fact, relapse rates during pregnancy actually go down, which is most likely related to the production of hormones. Relapse after pregnancy is common, but not at a higher rate than the person had before pregnancy in almost all cases.

Myth #3 – People with multiple sclerosis should avoid exercise.

Debunked. There’s no reason individuals with multiple sclerosis can’t exercise, and in some cases stretching can help reduce muscle spasms. Heat often makes symptoms worse, so overheating during exercise should be avoided.

Myth #4 – Multiple sclerosis is difficult to detect and diagnose.

Debunked (sort of). While lots of people suffer for years before being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the effects of the disease on the central nervous system (brain and spine) are often relatively easy to detect on imaging scans.

Although detecting the condition on imaging isn’t usually difficult, recognizing the need for those tests often takes some time. Many early symptoms are common and not specific to MS. Sufferers of the progressive form of multiple sclerosis often first experience difficulty walking and numbness below the waist. For relapsing cases, early symptoms may include loss of vision in one eye and numbness in both legs. Too often, people will wait until their third or fourth bout of symptoms to see a doctor. By the time they finally get to their appointment, the symptoms may have subsided.

Myth #5 – Everyone has the same chance of developing multiple sclerosis.

Debunked. Multiple sclerosis, like a majority of autoimmune disorders, is much more common in women than men at a ratio of about 2:1. The progressive form of multiple sclerosis, however, is actually slightly more common in men.

Several factors can increase the risk of developing multiple sclerosis, including low levels of vitamin D, smoking and obesity. These are not causes, but they do slightly increase a person’s risk. Genetics are a factor as well. An individual’s chances of developing MS are slightly higher if someone in their family has the condition. Finally, there are very few cases near the equator, and the disease gets more common in people who live further north in cooler climates early in their lives. This may be related to sunlight exposure, affecting vitamin D levels.

Myth #6 – There is a cure for multiple sclerosis

Debunked. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for multiple sclerosis. Doctors will often use short-term corticosteroid treatments to help treat attacks and flare-ups, but these drugs do little if anything to affect the disease’s progression.

However, new treatment options are being developed all the time. More than a dozen new treatments and medications have been introduced over the last two decades. These treatments are delaying the progression of the disease and allowing people to live fuller, healthier lives.