Mental Health Effects of Multiple Sclerosis

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What Is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological condition that affects the central nervous system.It’s a type of autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the protective layers of the nerves. This causes nerve damage that disrupts communication with the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the body. This, in turn, may create lesions on the brain.

Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

MS lesions affect areas of the brain associated with movement, speech, and vision, causing symptoms like muscle spasms, vision loss, and speech dysfunction.

Other physiological symptoms of MS include chronic pain and chronic fatigue, which are very common in individuals with this disorder.

Fatigue and cognitive difficulties may also be a result of medication for MS symptoms. MS patients also experience the burden of neurological symptoms like cognitive impairments that affect memory, processing speed, and concentration.

Psychological symptoms like depression and anxiety may also be more present in this population.

Prevalence

Diagnostic procedures for MS may include an MRI scan of the brain to observe if there are lesions on the brain, and spinal taps (lumbar punctures), which can identify antibodies related to MS. 

This disorder usually appears in people between the ages of 20 and 50, the average age being 30 years old. It is also three times more prevalent in women. Damage to nerves and the spinal cord continue to progress throughout an individual’s life.

Treatment

The symptoms of MS severely impact the quality of life (QoL). Although there is currently no cure for MS, there are treatment methods to help manage symptoms, like medication, therapies, and alternative medicine.

Currently, clinical studies are discovering possible preventive measures for MS by diagnosing MS before the onset of symptoms.

Mental Health Effects of Being Diagnoses With Multiple Sclerosis

Living with any condition can lead to negative psychological effects. Let's take a look at the mental health impact of an MS diagnosis.

Psychological Disorders

Due to abnormalities in certain regions of the brain, individuals with MS are more susceptible to psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Anxiety & Depression

The prevalence rate of anxiety and depression in this population is between 16% and 44%. Anxiety and depression are also related to attempts to adjust to the diagnosis of MS and cope with symptoms.

Stress

MS can produce a great amount of psychological stress in trying to manage and cope with the disorder. Stress also causes an individual to relapse.

In a review of multiple studies, researchers discovered that greater perceived stress has a negative impact on adjusting to an MS diagnosis and its symptoms. Uncertainty about the illness itself is also associated with stress, as well as anxiety, and depression.

Individuals with MS may also experience difficulties related to maintaining a well-rounded life in attempts to balance responsibilities like work, relationships, financial stability, and family obligations with MS symptoms.

Difficulties Adjusting to an MS Diagnosis

Being diagnosed with any chronic illness alone is overwhelming and may produce an array of different emotions like frustration, anger, confusion, fear, and sadness.

Knowing that there is currently no definitive cure for MS and not having a clear understanding of the disorder can make these feelings even more pronounced. The anticipation of every medical visit may also cause additional stress and anxiety. 

A study determined that individuals diagnosed with MS, along with their partners, experience greater anxiety and depression after an MS diagnosis. Of those who participated in the study, anxiety was higher in 34% of patients and 40% of partners. Severe distress was displayed in 36% of patients and 24% of their partners. These changes were seen eight months after patients were diagnosed. 

Lower Quality of Life

Quality of life appears to be lower in individuals with MS than in those without. There is also the frustration of trying to maintain everyday life while managing symptoms.

MS causes a severe impact on QoL and psychological well-being. It interferes with everyday life, creating limitations in socialization, daily functioning, and professional abilities.

Coping With Mental Health Effects of a Multiple Sclerosis Diagnosis

The following are resources and interventions that are beneficial for coping with the mental health effects of receiving an MS diagnosis and living with the condition.

Healthy Lifestyle Practices

Researchers discovered that healthy lifestyle practices can help MS patients with coping. They believe that it can be beneficial to the patient to establish behavioral goals toward certain lifestyle practices, such as:

  • Complying with medication guidelines
  • Regularly partaking in physical activity
  • Developing a healthy diet and sleep routine
  • Engaging in rest and relaxation
  • Boundaries with cigarette and alcohol use

Spirituality is a lifestyle practice that was shown to be related to adjustment, most likely due to its connection to meaning, purpose in life, and the ability to endure suffering.  

In a review of different scientific literature, researchers discovered that “links were consistently demonstrated between the choice of coping strategy and a range of adjustment indices (aka indexes) including depression, distress, anxiety, QoL, relationship satisfaction, and social adjustment.”

Researchers found that one of the most beneficial coping strategies is positive thinking habits by seeking meaning and purpose in life.

Enforcing healthy coping mechanisms in one’s life can help with adjusting to MS. There was a strong relationship between illness adjustment and positive coping mechanisms like seeking out social support to talk about the condition and gain a clearer understanding of MS from those who can offer information or advice.

Psychotherapy

Researchers explored the role that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and supportive-expressive group therapy (SEG) had on depressive symptoms in individuals with MS.

Patients received each type of therapy once a week for 16 weeks. Depression was reduced in participants and the effects remained consistent after a 6-month follow-up.

CBT, however, appeared to be more effective than SEG. Researchers believe these findings might indicate that therapy designed to develop coping mechanisms along with antidepressants offers greater benefits for patients than support groups.

Medication

Medication for MS symptoms may also help in treating psychological symptoms, by lessening other symptoms, like pain and fatigue. Managing other symptoms may decrease the mental health effects that MS symptoms cause.

After interviewing 665 participants, researchers discovered that 37% of patients take medication for MS symptoms. Of the 37%, the most common medication was used to treat symptoms of pain, spasticity (i.e., unusual tightness in the muscles that restricts muscle movement), and mood disorder. And, 63% of patients did not take medication for MS symptoms.

There is also the option of treating psychological disorders on their own with the use of antidepressants. Researchers found that antidepressants along with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) presented effective results in decreasing depression in patients with MS.

Conventional Alternative Medicine

Patients with MS often engage in conventional alternative medicine (CAM) practices to help with the management of psychological symptoms.

Types of CAM Therapy

Some examples of CAM therapy are acupuncture, massages, pilates, and other nontraditional and holistic treatment practices. Many individuals with MS prefer to utilize these interventions rather than pharmaceuticals in an attempt to avoid the side effects or risks of MS medication. 

Dietary Changes May Alleviate MS Symptoms

A research study found more participants with MS preferred CAM over MS medication. 74% of these participants were women, and 70% of participants reported lifetime use of at least one type of CAM.

The most popular CAM was altering diet, most of the other interventions were dietary supplements, more specifically, types of vitamins, like vitamin E, C, and B. Omega-3 fatty acids were the most common supplement taken amongst participants. 

Another study found that 54.9% to 85% of MS patients use some form of CAM therapy. After reviewing data from a five-year period, this study also discovered CAM practices that presented the most potential in effectively treating MS symptoms.

These interventions were diet and dietary supplements, specifically a low-fat diet, and omega-3 fatty acids as well as vitamin D to act as anti-inflammatories. Researchers feel these CAMs deserve further research because they have the potential to benefit MS patients. 

The Efficacy of CAM Therapies Is Hard to Determine

The concern with CAM therapies for treating MS symptoms is the little scientific support provided for many of these practices, making efficacy difficult to assess. Research on CAM therapies has, however, been expanding over the past years.

Studies found interventions that are known to reduce stress in the general population like relaxation and reflexology techniques appear to lessen pain, stress, anxiety, and depression in patients with MS. The benefits of relaxation and reflexology have to be further explored to understand their effectiveness.

A Word From Verywell

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with MS and are confused about why you have been experiencing some of the above mental health effects, consult your physician. They may be able to lead you in the right direction in managing psychological symptoms or offer a clearer understanding of the disease to help lessen stress and feelings of uneasiness. 

It's possible that making some changes to your diet or exploring certain dietary supplements might help in managing symptoms. There is also the option of psychotherapy to gain further insight into how to manage stress and psychological symptoms. A physician or therapist can also aid you in deciding if medicine, antidepressants, or other CAM therapies might be right for you at this time. 

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Tiara Blain
Tiara Blain, MA, is a freelance writer for Verywell Mind. She is a health writer and researcher passionate about the mind-body connection.