Not only does MS affect more women than men, but some research says that MS symptoms may also hit women harder than men. One possible reason for this is the hormone changes that happen in women’s bodies throughout their lives.
Typically you get an MS diagnosis during your reproductive years. Because of this, some scientists wonder if reproductive hormones play a role in the disease. Though there are no sure answers to that question yet, a few key aspects of women’s lives could help explain why they may get the short end of the stick when it comes to MS symptoms.
Many women report that their MS symptoms get worse right around the time of their period. The symptoms they report include tiredness, depression, balance problems, and weakness.
Increased MS symptoms that coincide with your period may come from a rise in your body’s core temperature. Your body temperature rises just before and during your period, and body temperature affects MS symptoms.
Birth control pills may help with these MS symptoms. In a study of the link between cycles and MS flares, women taking oral birth control were less likely than others to complain of worse symptoms during their periods.
MS medications can further complicate the relationship between MS and menstrual cycles. One type of disease-modifying therapy (DMT), called beta interferons, might cause irregular periods or spotting between periods. But these side effects tend to go away after a few months.
Both women and men can have trouble with libido and reaching orgasm when they have MS. But women in particular may have less sensation in the genital area because of MS. Sex can also be more painful for women because of vaginal dryness caused by MS.
In women already living with MS, pregnancy can bring an improvement in symptoms. But they typically come back after you deliver your baby. MS relapse rates are high after a pregnancy ends.
Women who have undiagnosed MS, on the other hand, may get their first symptoms during pregnancy. The muscle weakness that MS causes can make it hard to balance as your belly grows. This can put you at a higher risk for falls. For women with undiagnosed MS, pregnancy fatigue may be worse than normal, too.
Women typically start going through menopause in their 40s or 50s. For most U.S. women, it happens around age 51. Those who are living with MS may have worse symptoms during this time.
For starters, hot flashes, a hallmark of menopause, raise your body temperature, which in turn can set off MS symptoms. Some MS and menopause symptoms overlap, so they may be more intense. They include:
- Mood issues
- Sleep problems
- Greater fatigue
- Cognitive problems
- Bladder or bowel issues
Some research shows that MS-related disability increases after menopause. Hormone replacement therapy, which helps menopausal symptoms by increasing estrogen in your body, could help prevent some MS symptoms during this time. But experts say more research is necessary to be sure.
Of course, menopause is part of the aging process. The worsening of MS symptoms could be a part of this process, too, and not a direct result of menopause. Researchers continue to explore this question.