Multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms come and go. You can have periods when symptoms like fatigue, numbness, and weakness flare up, which is also known as a flare-up.
Periods of relapses alternate with symptom-free periods of remission. Relapses are brand-new symptoms that last more than 24 hours. They’re not recurrent old symptoms, which is a common misconception.
The goal of MS treatment is to slow the progression of the disease and prevent relapses.
You’ll start on a treatment soon after you’re diagnosed. Because there’s no cure for MS, you’ll probably need to take medication until you’re older.
However, new studies offer promising research that shows it may be safe to stop treatment in your 60s, if you don’t have new or worsening disease.
Though MS treatments do not manage symptoms, like symptomatic medications are designed to do, it’s important to stick with your MS medication.
These drugs help slow the progression of the disease and prevent relapses, or new symptoms.
If you stop taking your medication, you’re more likely to experience a relapse.
Even when you’re feeling well, following your prescribed treatment plan is the best way for you to avoid long-term problems related to MS.
Here are five reasons that it’s necessary to stay on your medication, whether you experience frequent relapses or not.
Some people only ever have one MS relapse. Doctors call this type of MS clinically isolated syndrome (CIS). Not everyone with CIS will go on to develop clinically definite MS, but it’s likely some will.
Even if you’ve only had one episode of symptoms, you’ll need to start treatment if your doctor thinks it could progress to MS.
Sticking with your treatment plan can help reduce inflammation in your brain and spinal cord. It can also help delay a second attack and the potential long-term damage that can come along with it.
In MS, your immune system misfires and mistakenly attacks the coating that surrounds and protects your nerves, which is called myelin.
Over time, damage to the myelin sheath can build up and damage the axon, which is referred to as axonal damage.
The axon is the part of the neuron that the myelin sheath protects. Continued axonal damage can lead to permanent neuronal loss and cell death.
Medications that treat the underlying cause of MS are called disease-modifying drugs or disease-modifying therapies (DMTs).
They help change the course of the disease by preventing the immune system from attacking the nerves. These medications help stop new MS lesions from forming on your brain and spinal cord.
Treatments for MS can also help reduce the likelihood of a relapse, but they don’t help make relapses less severe.
If you stop taking your MS medication, you’re more likely to relapse. And if left untreated, MS can result in more nerve damage and an increase in symptoms.
Starting treatment soon after you’re diagnosed and sticking with it may also help delay the potential progression from relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) to secondary-progressive MS (SPMS).
MS symptoms appear as the disease damages your nerves. So you might assume that if you feel fine, no damage is happening. That’s not true.
Under the surface, the disease can continue to destroy the nerves in your brain and spinal cord, even if you don’t experience a single symptom. Any resulting damage might not be reversible.
MS drugs don’t start working overnight, which makes immediate improvement unlikely.
For those who may be expecting immediate improvement, this may cause feelings of disappointment and even the consideration of stopping taking their treatment.
That’s why it’s important to talk with your healthcare team before starting a new treatment therapy. It allows you to get information in advance about how the treatment will work.
Ask your doctor what to expect when you start on a new drug. That way, you’ll know if a delay in improvement is normal or if your medication isn’t working and you need to try something else.
Just about any medication you take can cause side effects.
Some MS drugs may increase your risk for infection. Others may cause flu-like symptoms or stomach pain. You may experience a skin reaction after injecting certain MS medications.
These side effects aren’t pleasant, but they don’t last forever. Most will go away after you’ve been on the drug for a while. Your doctor can also recommend tips to manage any side effects that you continue to experience.
If side effects don’t improve, talk to your doctor. They may recommend switching to another medication that’s easier to tolerate.
It’s important that you stay on the MS treatment your doctor prescribes.
Your medication helps prevent new symptoms. If you stop taking it, you may experience an increase in relapses, which could result in more MS-related damage.
It’s also important to note that stopping a DMT doesn’t cause symptoms to re-occur. However, certain triggers, such as heat and stress, can cause a reoccurrence.
Understanding what your treatment can do for you can help you understand why it’s necessary to stick with it long term.
Whenever you start a new drug, ask your doctor what to expect. Find out how long it’ll take for you to see improvement. Also, ask what side effects the drug can cause and how to manage them.
Consider joining or reaching out to a support group. Support groups are another place that you can get information about your MS medications.
Talking to others who have been diagnosed with MS can provide you with valuable insight about how medications have helped them.
They can also share their tips for managing side effects.