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Stress Makes MS Symptoms Worse

Toll on Immune System Mirrors Relapses and Remissions
WebMD Health News

Sept. 18, 2003 -- Life's ups and downs can make multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms worse -- probably because serious stress weakens the immune system, a new study shows.

A chronic disease known for unpredictable ups and downs, MS is thought to have links to childbirth and upper respiratory tract infections. Stressful life events have also been suspected, but no studies have ever pinned down the cause.

In their study, appearing in the recent issue of the British Medical Journal, researchers examined this link in 73 men and women being treated for MS symptoms. During a 16-month period, researchers recorded results of the patients weekly clinic visits:

  • 70 reported having at least one stressful event in their lives such as job stress, family illness or other problems, house or car problems, deaths in the family, financial problems, or a friend's or pet's illness.
  • Patients reported a total of 457 stressful events.
  • Of those patients, 56 had 134 episodes of symptom flare-ups and 57 patients had 136 infections.

The findings show that stress doubled the risk of worsening MS symptoms, reports researcher D. Buljevac, PhD, a neurologist with Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Stress may trigger physiological changes that work against the immune system, making it less able to suppress MS symptoms, Buljevac speculates.

Infection also played a role. Stress and infection were independently associated with an increase risk for a flare-up of MS. However, the study did not find an increase in the risk of an infection after a stressful life event.

Dealing with Stress

The key to managing stress-induced flare-ups is to find ways to eliminate the source of stress. First, you must recognize the warning signs the body naturally gives us, such as:

  • Anger, an inability to concentrate, unproductive worry, sadness, and frequent mood swings
  • Sweaty palms, chronic fatigue, and weight gain or loss
  • Overreacting, acting on impulse, using alcohol or drugs, and withdrawing from relationships

To reduce stress:

  • Keep a positive attitude.
  • Accept that there are events that you cannot control.
  • Be assertive instead of aggressive.
  • Learn relaxation techniques.
  • Exercise regularly. Your body can fight stress better when it is fit.
  • Eat well-balanced meals.
  • Rest and sleep. Your body needs time to recover from stressful events.
  • Don't rely on alcohol or drugs to reduce stress.

Learning to cope with stress may help keep MS symptoms from flaring up, researchers say.

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