Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a lifelong condition that affects everyone differently. Scientists haven’t found a cure yet, but medication and lifestyle changes can help you manage symptoms and better control your disease. You and your doctor can work together to figure out which treatments are best. Here are a few tips.
Know Your Options
There are four kinds of MS. Relapsing-remitting and progressive are the most common, and your treatment will depend on which type you have. Ask your doctor about the following:
Disease-modifying treatments (DMTs). These are the only drugs proven to slow down the natural course of MS. There’s evidence they also ease loss of brain tissue caused by the disease. These drugs work best when you start them early, or as soon as you’re diagnosed. You’ll need to keep taking them even if you feel better. There are many different kinds of DMTs. Ask your doctor to go over the pros and cons of each one.
Steroids. If you have a relapse, you may get steroids through a vein in your arm for 3-5 days. You don’t always need to treat a relapse or a flare-up, but steroids will ease your symptoms faster.
Other drugs. DMTs can slow your MS, but they might not help you feel better. You may need different drugs for other mental and physical symptoms. These may include:
- Muscle relaxers
Rehabilitation programs. MS can affect how well you can do certain things. But rehabilitation specialists can help you function better. Tell your doctor if you have trouble:
- Thinking or remembering things
Complementary or alternative medicine. These treatments won’t change the course of your disease. But they might help ease some of your symptoms, like muscle spasms, pain, and depression. Your doctor might suggest them in addition to DMTs or other medication.
Some of these nondrug options include:
- A healthy diet
- Vitamins and supplements
- Cooling gear
Ask about anything you want to know. You should feel comfortable with your treatment plan. Here are some questions to get you started:
- Will my medication be a shot, pill, or needle through my vein?
- Are there side effects?
- Why do I need this specific drug?
- Is this the most effective medicine for my kind of MS?
- How will I know if it stops working?
- Will I need to take medicine forever?
- What happens if I choose not to treat my MS?
Know What to Watch For
New symptoms can be a sign of a relapse. That’s when you get a new lesion. You’ll usually get symptoms you’ve never had before. You might notice:
- Vision problems
- Loss of balance
- Numbness and tingling on one side of your body
Call your doctor right away if you have any of these. They may want to check for new lesions with an MRI. That’s a machine that takes pictures of your brain or spinal cord.
It can be hard to tell the difference between a true relapse and a flare-up. That’s a worsening of old symptoms. Check in with your doctor -- in person or through a virtual visit -- anytime you’re unsure about what’s going on.
Don’t Be Shy
Your doctor can help you treat lots of MS-related problems. But they’ll need to know exactly how the disease affects you. There’s no reason to be embarrassed about any of your symptoms. If it’s happening to you, it’s probably happened to someone else, too.
It’s not uncommon for MS to cause the following:
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Trouble getting aroused or having an orgasm
- Low sex drive
- Mood changes
Build the Right Health Care Team
You’ll likely work with more than one doctor. This team approach gives you a tailored treatment for all your symptoms.
Your main doctor should be a neurologist who specializes in MS. But they may refer you to a:
- Clinical psychologist
- Physical therapist
- Pain specialist
- Bowel or bladder doctor
- Speech therapist
You can always see another doctor if you feel like any of your symptoms aren’t under control. Look for someone with lots of MS experience.
See Your Doctor Regularly
You’ll go in every few months until you and your doctor settle on a treatment plan. Once your MS is stable, they’ll probably want to see you every 6 months. If you’re older than 65 and you haven’t changed drugs in 5 years, you may need to check in only once a year.
Sharon Stoll, DO, Yale Medicine; assistant professor, Department of Neurology, Yale School of Medicine.
National Multiple Sclerosis Society: “Types of MS,” “Medications,” “Comprehensive Care,” “Acupuncture,” “Make the Most of Your Healthcare Provider Visits,” “MS Symptoms,” “Developing a Healthcare team.”
Multiple Sclerosis and Demyelinating Disorders: “Effects of disease modifying therapies on brain and grey matter atrophy in relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis.”
Virginia Mason Medical Center: “Steroids for MS Relapse.”
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Multiple Sclerosis: Hope Through Research.”
Multiple Sclerosis: “The Multiple Sclerosis Care Unit.”