Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition that disrupts the information pathways that connect your brain and your body. From time to time, the symptoms of MS can unexpectedly worsen. When symptoms suddenly flare up, it’s called a relapse or an exacerbation.
Relapses are periods of new or worsening MS symptoms that last 24 hours or longer. Most of the time, a relapse happens after a gap of 30 days of longer without a flare-up.
The most common kind of MS, called relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), adheres to this pattern: An exacerbation followed by a stretch of time when symptoms either decrease or go away completely.
About 85 percent of people with MS are diagnosed with RRMS, which means that most people with MS can expect to experience relapses throughout their lives.
It’s important to note that, for some people, the changes brought on by a relapse may not go away. They become the new normal.
A relapse can be mild, or it can be so severe that it’s debilitating. During a relapse, you could notice any or all of the symptoms discussed below.
Most people feel tired from time to time, but the fatigue caused by an MS relapse is different. It is not just feeling tired or sleepy. It’s an actual decrease in your ability to perform tasks because of physical, psychological, or neurological changes.
As many as
When MS affects your spine, one of the results can be tingling or numbness in your arms, legs, face, or other body parts. You could also experience weakness or extra sensitivity, especially to heat or touch.
- blurred vision
- double vision
- loss of colored vision
- pain with eye movement
It’s important to note that total vision loss is rare with MS.
Spasticity or stiffness
Bowel or bladder problems
During a relapse, you may experience new or worsening bladder issues, including:
- having to urinate more often
- feeling more urgency when you have to urinate
- leaking urine
Problems with cognition
- pay attention
- make decisions
- complete a process
- find the right word
- think clearly and efficiently
However, in a
What if I have a fever?
Health experts note that if you have a fever, what you’re experiencing is probably not a relapse of MS. A fever indicates another health issue may be at the root of the symptoms you’re having.
When to go to the hospital
While it’s very important to talk with a doctor about a relapse right away, you may not need to visit the emergency department in every instance. You should go to the hospital if a relapse causes any new disabling symptoms, including:
- problems with mobility
- loss of vision
- inability to think clearly
It’s also important to be aware of the symptoms of stroke, which should alert you to seek emergency medical care.
During a relapse, new or larger lesions (damaged areas) form in your brain, spinal cord, or optic nerves. The symptoms you experience depends on the extent of the damage and the areas involved.
Although researchers are still working to determine exactly what prompts a relapse, these factors appear to raise your risk:
Hormones, especially reproductive hormones, can affect the likelihood of a relapse or the types of symptoms you experience during a relapse.
Researchers have pinpointed several genetic factors that could lead to more frequent relapses. One 2018
Adults who are
Both bacterial and viral infections can trigger an MS relapse. Researchers estimate that
The frequency of relapses varies from person to person. It can depend on each person’s overall health and risk factors (described above).
If you’re having a relapse, one of the most common treatments is a short but intense course of corticosteroids to reduce the inflammation in your body. Your treatment could look something like this:
- 3 to 5 days of high-dose corticosteroids given orally or by IV
- 3 to 4 weeks of oral steroids, given in gradually smaller doses
Some people don’t respond well to corticosteroids. In those cases, treatment might involve therapeutic plasma exchange or immunoabsorption. These are in-hospital treatments that remove antibodies from your blood and replace them with filtered or “purified” plasma.
Tips for coping with an MS relapse
If you’re dealing with a sudden surge in symptoms, you may find these strategies helpful:
- Know your triggers. MS symptoms can be temporarily worsened by things like heat, stress, and a lack of good sleep. While these microbursts of symptoms aren’t actually an MS relapse, they can still disrupt your life.
- Talk with a healthcare professional. Your doctor and other healthcare professionals will be better able to monitor your MS progression if they are aware of the symptoms you’re experiencing. It’s especially important to contact your doctor if the symptoms are severe or debilitating. In this case, it may be necessary to seek treatment in a hospital setting to restore your health.
- Bring in your support system. Trusted friends, family members, neighbors, and coworkers may be able to help you deal with some of the practical limitations a relapse can impose. A dose of emotional support goes a long way in a health crisis, even if it’s a temporary one.
- Consider therapy. Depression, anxiety, and anger can accompany a relapse. Taking care of your mental health is as important as treating your physical symptoms.
- Be kind to yourself. MS relapses are hard, and you may feel frustrated by your limitations. You may be experiencing emotional ups and downs, especially if you’re taking corticosteroids. If you’re able, try to use a gentle and forgiving internal voice.
- Practice self–care. Physical activity may be harder during a relapse. It may also be harder to prepare healthy meals or get a good night’s rest. But exercise, rest, and a nutrient-dense diet are especially important when you’re recovering from a relapse.
If you have MS, your symptoms may unexpectedly flare up from time to time, especially if you have RRMS. You could experience greater fatigue, numbness, difficulty with your eyesight, muscle spasms, stiffness, or bowel and bladder problems.
A relapse can last anywhere from 24 hours to a month or more, but treatment could lessen the severity or bring about a remission more quickly. Your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids or a plasma exchange to reduce the inflammation causing the flare-up.
Getting through a relapse isn’t easy. It’s important to work with healthcare professionals and seek the support of people you trust so you can cope with the difficulties until you’re feeling better.