Understanding Multiple Sclerosis: A Primer for the Newly Diagnosed (Part 3)

March is Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month

In this three-part series, Understanding Multiple Sclerosis: A Primer for the Newly Diagnosed, Inova explores how individuals living with multiple sclerosis (MS) can live better physically, mentally and emotionally.

Part 1: Recognizing MS Symptoms

Part 2: Understanding MS Treatment Options

Part 3: 10 Ways to Live Better with MS

Rahul Davé, MD, PhD, is Medical Director of Inova’s Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology program.  

With so many effective medications available to treat multiple sclerosis (MS), life can continue normally for many patients – especially those diagnosed early and treated appropriately. Experiencing few (or no) relapses over many years, people may even forget they have MS.

Regardless, it is essential to remain vigilant about the different ways to manage your MS to stay as healthy as possible. For those with more severe disease, treating it aggressively and consistently addressing and caring for debilitating symptoms can make day-to-day life feel more normal.   

Medications, of course, are not the only way to treat MS. Lifestyle – which includes all the choices you make and habits you forge – plays an integral role in both symptom management and overall wellness.

Here are 10 approaches to living better with MS. While some may overlap with others, each suggestion stands alone:

Diet and nutrition. There’s no such thing as an “MS diet,” but keeping yourself well-nourished should include eating foods high in fiber and low in saturated fats. Eating right can have a significant impact on factors such as energy level and bowel and bladder function.

Exercise. It’s important to be active and exercise with MS. Many patients stop exercising because the heat and sweat generated during their workout may worsen symptoms. Don’t worry about the symptoms worsening by the heat or cold. Your brain, along with your muscles and bones, is strengthened by physical activity. Exercise also improves mood and sleep.

Smoking.  Smoking is a significant risk factor for worsening MS. If you smoke, quit. Smoking has been associated with worsening the number of MS spots and causing more aggressive relapses.

Weight control. Gaining weight can be all too easy for some MS patients due to steroid therapy or symptoms such as fatigue or depression. But extra pounds can contribute to issues that can make MS worse, such as pressure sores, stress on joints and demand on heart and lungs. If you’re having trouble losing extra weight, talk to your healthcare team and get support through weight-control apps or programs.

Supplements. The key preventable risk factor is vitamin D deficiency, and many patients benefit from vitamin D supplements (but be careful, since vitamin D toxicity is possible). Vitamin B12 can also help MS patients. Supplements such as biotin, alpha-lipoic acid and clemastine are being researched, but haven’t yet been proven beneficial. And because these supplements aren’t officially evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), manufacturers can make baseless claims on the bottle. Some supplements (such as pyridoxine [vitamin B6]), when used in high doses, are known to damage nerves.

Alternative treatments. Cannabidiol (CBD) and low-dose naltrexone have gained media attention. However, their safety in MS patients has not been established. Medical marijuana has been researched and found not to be beneficial in MS patients. Acupuncture has been shown to improve symptoms such as pain, fatigue, mood and muscle spasms. Massage can also cut stress and depression, as well as promote relaxation.

Physical therapy. Depending on your MS symptoms, such as muscle weakness, sometimes it’s useful for a physical therapist to teach you specific exercises to stay more active. Trained professionals can also teach you how to use a cane, walker or other assistive devices to improve your mobility.

Keeping cool. MS symptoms can worsen when body temperature rises, though this doesn’t mean your disease is worsening. When it’s hot outdoors, try to stay in an air-conditioned space. When outside, wear loose, breathable clothing. Devices such as cooling vests or scarves can also help.

Managing other chronic conditions. Many people with MS also cope with other chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and/or lung disease, autoimmune disorders or mood disorders. It’s vital to control these conditions, since they can accelerate the progression of MS or delay treatment.

Getting support. Living with a chronic illness like MS can feel isolating if you don’t seek connection with others. Consider joining a support group for MS patients and families, and discuss your concerns about living with MS with a doctor or therapist. 

There is Hope

MS is a chronic condition that leads to a wide range of symptoms throughout the human body. The degree of severity and progression ranges from person to person. It is hard to predict what will happen, but most people will not experience severe disability.

A person who receives appropriate treatment and follows a healthy lifestyle can expect to live the same number of years as a person without MS.

To schedule an appointment with Inova’s Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology Program’s clinic, call 703-280-1234.

Our team includes neurologists, rheumatologists, infectious disease specialists, urologists, radiologists, rehab physicians and other specialists who work together to determine your care.

Inova is a designated member of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers.

Living with MS is difficult. The condition is unpredictable, and symptoms come and go and affect people in different ways.

Read Part 1 of the Understanding Multiple Sclerosis article series here: Recognizing MS Symptoms.

Read Part 2 of the Understanding Multiple Sclerosis article series here: Understanding MS Treatments Options.

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