MS is a lifelong condition that can affect overall health. With proper management of symptoms, people living with MS can often remain active for many years. And not everyone will have complications. However, some complications are common to many people living with MS.
Here are seven common issues that affect people with MS, and ways to help manage them.
Corticosteroids are no longer the first line of defense against MS. This is because of the risk of side effects of corticosteroids and the development of more effective MS treatments. Now corticosteroids are typically used only to make an attack go away quickly.
Complications from short-term oral corticosteroid use include:
- high blood pressure
- fluid retention
- pressure in the eyes
- weight gain
- mood and memory problems
Few people should take corticosteroids long term. However, if you do take a corticosteroid long term, you may be at greater risk for complications that include:
- high blood sugar
- thin bones and fractures
- reduced adrenal gland function
MS causes interruptions in signals between the brain and the urinary tract and bowel systems. This means that sometimes the body doesn’t receive the message that it’s time to release waste. Sometimes nerve damage may also affect signals to the brain along with muscle function in the parts of the body that release waste.
These bladder and bowel problems usually include:
The bladder may be overactive or fail to empty completely. To help with bowel and bladder issues, some people follow a high-fiber diet or take medications like fiber agents or stool softeners. Others receive nerve stimulation and physical therapy to help them regain some bowel and bladder function.
According to the MS Society of Canada, people living with MS experience higher rates of depression and bipolar affective disorder. The reasons for these rates are complex.
Depression may be connected to changes in brain tissue caused by MS. It may also be the result of the emotional challenges of living with the condition. Some people with MS may feel a sense of isolation, and face career, economic, and social challenges.
Bipolar affective disorder may also be a side effect of MS progression or certain medications such as corticosteroids.
Treatments for MS-related mental health issues include medications like tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Different forms of psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy also can help manage symptoms. Organizations such as the National MS Society and the MS Coalition also have member resources to help connect people living with MS, and provide strategies for dealing with the challenges of MS, including mental health issues.
Vision changes occur as MS progresses. You may experience some of these symptoms for a short time, or they may become permanent. Possible vision complications include:
- blurry vision
- diplopia (double vision)
- nystagmus (uncontrolled eye movements)
- vision loss
Treatments may focus on helping you manage vision changes. This could involve wearing an eye patch if you have double vision, or taking medication to control nystagmus.
Many people believe MS only affects mobility, but about half of people living with the condition develop cognitive issues, like memory loss and slower intellectual processing. These issues could also result in reduced problem-solving, verbal, abstract reasoning, and visual-spatial abilities. These changes in cognition are likely from brain atrophy or lesions caused by MS.
Cognitive changes don’t have to significantly impact the day-to-day life of someone with MS. Medications and cognitive rehabilitation can help people retain cognitive function. Support from family and friends is also an important resource.
People with MS may have a feeling of numbness or other physical sensations. Dysesthesia is a painful form of these sensations. This condition can cause:
- a feeling of tightness
The MS hug is a feeling of tightness in the chest that makes it hard to breathe. This condition can be a form of dysesthesia, or the result of a spasm. Often, this symptom passes on its own without treatment. If the symptom persists, there are medications to treat sensory complications, including amitriptyline, duloxetine, baclofen, and gabapentin.
VTE occurs when a blood clot travels through the bloodstream to a vessel, causing a blockage. A study published by the MS Trust UK in 2014 found that those living with MS had a 2.6 times greater risk for having VTE than the general population. This is partly because people living with MS typically have risk factors for VTE. These include:
- spasticity (muscle stiffness)
- lack of mobility
- steroid use
MS is largely an individual journey, but you can get support to help meet your physical, medical, and emotional needs. Learning about complications and how to prevent or manage them is one way to be proactive about your health.
Communicate with those who care about you when you’re dealing with MS complications. You can meet the challenges of life with MS with the help of your family, friends, and doctors.