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Childbirth May Slow Progression of MS

Some Multiple Sclerosis Patients Have Slower Progression of Disease if They've Given Birth
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 23, 2009 -- Childbirth appears to slow the progression of multiple sclerosis, whether a woman gives birth before her diagnosis or after, according to a Belgian study.

Women whose children were born after MS began were even more likely to have a slower progression of disease than those who children were born before symptoms began, compared to childless women, the researchers found.

''Although the largest difference was found between the women who had children after the onset of MS compared to the women without children, all patients who gave birth at any point in time seemed to do better than those who did not have children," says researcher Marie D'hooghe, MD, a neurologist at the National Multiple Sclerosis Center, Melsbroek, Belgium. The study is published online in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

The findings, however, shouldn't make childless women feel guilty they didn't ''help'' their disease by becoming pregnant, nor should it be a reason to attempt pregnancy, says Patricia O'Looney, PhD, vice president of biomedical research at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, who reviewed the study for WebMD..

MS is an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system, accounting for the most frequent cause of disability in young adults. Early symptoms, which can come and go, include tingling, numbing, loss of balance, and blurred vision. As the disease progresses, loss of balance and muscle coordination can make walking difficult.

Previous research has shown that MS tends to remit during pregnancy. ''The short-term effects of pregnancy on the course of MS have been repeatedly confirmed, with a lower relapse risk during the second and especially the third trimester and an increased relapse risk in the postpartum period," D'hooghe says. "As for the long-term effects, the findings have been mixed. Most studies did not find a long-term effect of childbirth on the disease course in MS."

Evaluating Progress of MS

For the study, D'Hooghe and her colleagues evaluated 330 women with MS, with an average of 18 years with the disease, between 2005 and 2007. All women had been referred to one center in Belgium and all had experienced their first symptoms from age 22 to about 38.

Eighty of the study participants had no children, 170 had given birth before their symptoms began, 61 had given birth after symptoms developed, and 19 had given birth both before and after giving birth.

D'hooghe evaluated which women at the end of the study had disease that had progressed to the point of needing a cane, crutch, or brace to walk 100 meters (about 328 feet). This category of disability is called Expanded Disability Status Scale or EDSS 6.

Childbirth affected the speed of progression of MS, the researchers found.  After an average of 18 years, 55% had reached EDSS 6.  Among the findings:

  • Women who had given birth to one or more children at any point -- before or after symptoms began -- were 34% less likely than childless women to progress to EDSS 6.
  • Women whose children were born after symptoms began were 39% less likely to progress to EDSS 6 than childless women -- even taking into account the age at which symptoms began.

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