MS and Diabetes: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on June 05, 2024
3 min read

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a disease of the brain and spinal cord. Your immune system attacks the nerve fibers and myelin sheathing around them, which interferes with electrical signals in the brain.

Diabetes is a disease that causes too much sugar in your blood. In type 1, your body (pancreas) can’t make insulin, so blood sugar can’t get into your cells to be used for energy. In type 2, your body doesn’t make enough insulin or can’t use it in the right way.

The conditions are connected – first, because they share some of the same symptoms, and second, because some research suggests they might have some of the same causes.

Both conditions can cause:

Keep in mind that these symptoms could be a sign of any number of other illnesses outside of diabetes or MS.

Still, if you notice any of these issues, contact your health care provider. They will ask about all your symptoms, your health history, medications, and any other diagnoses that you have. If your symptoms are a result of MS or diabetes, it should be a fairly simple matter to figure out which one it is.

But whatever causes your symptoms, it’s important to seek out the reasons with your health care team and begin a treatment that can keep you as healthy as possible over the long term.

It’s not clear. But diabetes may be a “risk factor” for MS. That means that people with diabetes may be more likely to develop MS than people who don’t have it. One 2006 Danish study found that those with type 1 diabetes were 3 times more likely to get MS. Keep in mind that MS happens very rarely: to about 1 in 1,000 people. So a bump up to 3 in 1,000 people is still pretty rare.

More recent research shows that people with type 2 diabetes, especially women less than 51 years old, have a higher risk of developing MS. It’s not clear exactly why, but there is enough research to warrant further study.

Also, certain medications for type 2 diabetesmetformin (Glucophage, Glumetza, Riomet) and pioglitazone (Actos) – seem to slow the advance of MS as well.

Still, it’s important to remember that “correlation is not causation.” In other words, just because people with diabetes may be more likely to get MS doesn’t mean that the diabetes causes MS.

It may simply be that both conditions share some of the same risk factors. A risk factor is anything that makes you more likely to get a disease. Smoking, for example, is a risk factor for lung cancer (as well as heart disease, diabetes, COPD, rheumatoid arthritis, and many other things).

In the case of type 1 diabetes and MS, scientists think that a misfiring immune system may be a cause of both diseases. So, perhaps certain types of faulty immune responses could be a “risk factor” for both diseases.

But even that doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Scientists still have to figure out what causes a misfiring immune system in the first place. It is likely some mix of genes and things in the environment. But how much of which ones? Perhaps these are the “risk factors” that make the difference.

Much more research is needed to get to the bottom of this problem.