Learn About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis FAQs

Is multiple sclerosis contagious or fatal?

MS is neither contagious nor fatal. People with MS have a life expectancy that is not really any different from the general population. The leading causes of death in the MS community are heart disease, cancer, and stroke. MS tends to affect quality of life, not quantity of life. There are unusual variants of MS that can be very aggressive and potentially shorten life, but these are not the norm.

What are the most common symptoms of MS?

The most common characteristics of MS include fatigue, weakness, spasticity, balance problems, bladder and bowel problems, numbness, vision loss, tremor and vertigo. Not all symptoms affect all MS patients and symptoms and signs may be persistent or may cease from time to time.

Because the signs and symptoms that define the clinical picture of MS are the result of nerve lesions causing disturbances in electrical conduction in one or more areas of the central nervous system, the nature of the symptoms that occur is determined by the location of the lesion.

Why do doctors feel that I am imagining my symptoms?

In the beginning phases of multiple sclerosis, diagnostic tests, such as MRIs, may be negative but the patient may experience subjective sensory symptoms. These symptoms can include numbness, tingling, or fatigue, and will not be seen on diagnostic tests. This leads doctors to believe there is no illness or that anxiety is present. You should also know that a clinical diagnosis of MS may take years. Often a physician observes a person over a period of time before reaching a diagnosis of MS. Neurologists are generally consulted and diagnostic tests such as MRIs, evoked response potential, and others may be used to help with a diagnosis.

If you are not sure you have MS, don't be afraid to ask questions and to find out more about feelings and symptoms. Do not let symptoms continue without further investigation.

Am I going to end up in a wheelchair?

The natural course of MS is highly variable, and it is impossible to predict the nature, severity or timing of progression in a given patient. Some people with MS will have a more progressive disease course than others.

In some cases, the course of MS during the first five years may provide a clue to the progression of the disease during the next 10 years. Recent studies indicate that 90 percent of patients with minimal disability five years after onset were still ambulatory at 15 years. It is estimated that at 20 years after diagnosis, about 1/3 of people who receive no treatment may require a wheelchair or other assistive device.

With the present immunomodulatory therapies, the goal is to slow the progression of disability. Some people with MS respond quite well and may have no progression over years. For others, the treatment may slow, but not stop the progression. It is important to be active and work with your healthcare provider in order to obtain the most appropriate treatment, thus obtaining the highest level of benefit.

What options can help me?

Early treatment makes a difference. The necessity for early treatment in MS is becoming increasingly clearer. The time has passed for the “let’s wait and see how it goes” attitude before treatment is begun. Early treatment seems to delay disability presumably by decreasing the injury to the nervous system by the multiple sclerosis. The drugs used for treating MS are currently: Avonex, Betaseron, Copaxone, Tysabri, Novantrone, Lemtrada, Plegridy, and Techfidera. Another option is alternative healing modalities. Many people find a combination of the two choices can achieve the best results.

Does diet affect multiple sclerosis?

Although diet is not currently considered a causative factor in MS, there is anecdotal evidence from individuals with MS who have experienced health benefits by changing their diet. Eating consistently well over a period of time may help reduce fatigue, improve bladder and bowel problems, increase energy, and prevent bone loss. It may also positively affect mental and emotional health, including memory and concentration.

To learn more, request a copy of Nutrition and MS by calling 888-MSFOCUS (673-6287).

Does stress affect multiple sclerosis?

By understanding some of the psychological changes that accompany chronic disease, one may take an active role to achieve a more healthy mental state. Psychotherapy or counseling, and body cooling are ways one can relieve stress. Some prefer alternative treatment options, including relaxation techniques (exercise, yoga, massage therapy, meditation, biofeedback, and music) to learn ways to manage unavoidable stress. With MS, the stress that must be managed is the “distress” that may hamper our ability to cope with the events and people in our lives.

I've Can I get pregnant even though I have MS? I've heard of a woman with MS becoming pregnant and all symptoms of MS disappeared while she was pregnant. Can you explain? Is any research being done on things such as this?

For a woman with MS, the decision to have a baby can be more difficult. MS does not hinder a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant and carrying a child to full term. MS is only another factor in one’s decision to have a child, not the only one. Planning the pregnancy and getting all the information you need can make the decision process easier.

Together with your partner, visit your neurologist and discuss current disease activity and possible progression. With a bit of flexibility, and a creative, active approach on the part of both parents, solutions to various challenges presented by MS are attainable. Attend a local MS support group meeting and talk to others who are successfully parenting with MS.

Pregnancy is typically associated with a relative quieting of MS, especially in the second and third trimesters. This is an area of significant research with an estrogen called estriol appearing to play a large role. There are ongoing research projects looking at the use of estriol in treating MS. The six months after the baby is associated with a slightly higher risk of a relapse. Overall, the effect of pregnancy and delivery on a woman's MS may be slightly protective.

To learn more, request a copy of Pregnancy for Women with MS by calling 888-MSFOCUS (673-6287).

Is sleep apnea a symptom or side effect of multiple sclerosis?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is more common in the MS population as compared to the general population. Some people with MS who have OSA do not fit the typical profile of who we think of as having this sleep condition. Typically, when we think of OSA, we think of a middle-aged male who is likely overweight. In MS, this may not be the case. In the MS community, we do see younger people, women and people of normal body weight with OSA. Sleep disorders are importatnt to watch for in the person with MS as they can contribute to fatigue and put the person at risk for other long-term health problems.

I have been diagnosed with chorioretinitis (lesions in my left eye in the choroid behind the retina). I have lesions in my brain my neurologist says is probably MS. My opthamologist tested my blood for herpes, syphyllis, toxoplasmosis, lupus, and lyme disease, which all came back negative. Could the choioretinitis be MS related?

MS usually affects the optic nerves and not the retina or choriod. Inflammation of the retina and choroid is normally from another cause. It is highly unlikely that the diagnosis of chorioretinitis is directly caused by MS.

Why would a doctor use chemotherapies on somone with MS that is not very bad?

There are several drugs used in MS that could be considered chemotherapies. These include oral medications like methotrexate, Imuran and Cellcept. Intravenous medications include mitoxantrone and cyclophosphamide. Depending upon the medication and the dose, some of these drugs may have a lower side effect risk than others. Sometimes a drug like methotrexate may be picked if there is a suspicion of other superimposed health issues, like rheumatoid arthritis.

I was recently diagnosed with MS but I have no physical symptoms. I have several cerebral lesions the largest is located parallel to my ventricles. When can I expect to have symptoms? Is it possible for me to never be symptomatic?

It is possible to remain symptom free or, at the very least, that it not interfere with your daily life. The important thing is to seek good follow-up with a neurologist and to start disease modifying agents.

Should a person currently on Betaseron receive the Zostavax vaccine since it is a live vaccine?

No. Patients with MS should not receive any vaccinations with a live virus component.

What exercise can I do to get rid of my pain? Since I was told that I have MS, I have alot of pain back, numbness, and my legs burn.

Neuropathic pain can be a major problem for MS patients. Targeted exercise can help, especially proper stretching. It would be best to see a professional, such as a physical therapist, for help in setting up an exercise and stretching program. The burning pain in your legs will likely not respond totally to exercise. Medication is often necessary. Gabapentin and/or baclofen would be good first choices for help with pain and muscle stiffness.

Where do you recommend getting a light weight walker and a "skinny one?" My mother has MS and I would like to find one of those for her.

Apply to the Assistive Technology Grant program, listed on our website under the heading "Programs and Activites," for possible assistance in obtaining a walker. Contact our support team at 888-673-6287 if you have any questions regarding this process.

I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, but I am discovering that I have more symptoms of MS than I do FMS. It seems to be progressing, which FMS doesn't do. Where should I start in getting checked for MS?

You can view this link, http://www.msfocus.org/diagnose-multiple-sclerosis.aspx or look on our home page under the heading “Learn About MS.” Some people who suspect that they have MS may discuss their concerns with their physician or the may inquire further with a neurologist or MS specialist.

I have a major pain whenever I move. My physical therapist said she's never had an MS patient that had this particular pain. It's the bone behind my left ear and it's quite painful. I've tried acupuncture, a dentist, steroid injections, Cymbalta, and no medications don't help. Sometimes I think its a spasm but other times I'm not sure. It's getting worse. What can I do?

You may be describing occipital neuralgia. This condition is more common in people with MS, but can be seen in those without MS as well. The greater occipital nerve exits the base of the skull and supplies sensation to the scalp. Pain can travel anywhere along that course of the nerve but may center behind the ear or at the base of the skull. Possible treatments include a local nerve block, carbamazepine (Tegretol) or oxcarbazepine (Trileptal). An older anti-inflammatory drug called indomethacin is sometimes effective as well.

I have more than 24 lesions on my brain. What are the chances of getting a new lesion that will cause me to be bedridden? Is it the same as someone with only one lesion or does it go up, because I have so many?

The total number of lesions you have on MRI does not predict the future risk of a severe relapse. There are many variables to consider. If you are on one of the FDA-approved therapies, your risk of an attack is lower. If you have a relapse, there is some chance of a permanent new symptom, but it would be unlikely that a relapse would leave you permanently unable to get out of bed.

I have been on Betaseron for nearly two years, I had a recent MRI that shows a new 4mm lesion in the left thalamic area of my brain, does this mean the meds stopped working?

No medicine is perfect and people continue to have new MRI white spots despite therapy. It sounds like the Betaseron has been working for awhile and the decision of whether to switch is a lot more complicated than whether there is a new lesion or not -- this is why it is so important for you to talk to your neurologist about how you are doing.

I have been on Betaseron for nearly two years, I had a recent MRI that shows a new 4mm lesion in the left thalamic area of my brain, does this mean the meds stopped working?

No medicine is perfect and people continue to have new MRI white spots despite therapy. It sounds like the Betaseron has been working for awhile and the decision of whether to switch is a lot more complicated than whether there is a new lesion or not -- this is why it is so important for you to talk to your neurologist about how you are doing.

I was given positive diagnosis of MS two days ago. I also have type 2 diabetes, which we are having a terrible time getting under control. How do I manage both of these?

MS and type 2 diabetes are really two different health issues. While type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition like MS, type 2 diabetes is not. You may need to avoid steroids for MS relapses as they can significantly elevate your blood sugars. Given how common type 2 diabetes is, it's not unusual to see individuals with both conditions.

It is my understanding that if a person has thyroid disease they are a good candidate for MS. I believe I have a lot of the symptoms such as muscle spasm of leg, muscle weakness of leg, difficulty urinating, dizziness, problems with balance, depression, forgetfulness, and being unable to concentrate.

People with MS often have thyroid disease but having thyroid problems alone doesn't mean that someone has MS -- but having neurological symptoms does mean that you should talk to your personal care physician about seeing a neurologist -- they can help figure out the cause of your symptoms.

I have relapsing-remitting MS. A week or so ago I woke up with pain in behind my right eye. It even hurt to blink. I had blurred vision as well. This lasted for three days. Does this mean I had an exacerbation?

Yes. You should definitely call your neurologist and let them know that you may have had optic neuritis. Although, if it really only lasted three days, then it is quite short and there may be no need for an intervention. But your doctor would want to know about it as it may have an effect on future treatments.

Are headaches/migraines a common MS symptom?

Headaches are common period. 40 million Americans have migraines and even more have any type of headaches. So, sometimes headache is just a common symptom for anyone -- with or without MS. However, at other times it may be associated with MS or may even be an MS symptom.

I have more questions

The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation is pleased to answer any question you have about multiple sclerosis. If you have a question that was not addressed, please call our National Toll-free Helpline at 888-MSFOCUS (673-6287); or you can contact us by email: support@msfocus.org.

(Last reviewed 7/2009)

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