Alcoholism and Multiple Sclerosis

Why MS increases the risk of drinking problems

Woman having cocktail
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Multiple sclerosis (MS) and alcohol have an odd relationship. There's been some research to suggest alcohol (in moderate amounts) may actually help MS. But at the same time, people who are dealing with MS may be prone to abusing it. MS, with its unpredictable flare-ups, potential to interfere with a person's ability to socialize, work, and be physically active, can lead to depression. And depression, in turn, is a potential cause of alcoholism.

Dependency on alcohol can be damaging enough, but mixed with MS it can be especially problematic. Drinking can make many MS symptoms temporarily worse. And some medications prescribed for MS may have dangerous interactions with alcohol. If you have MS and drink, it's important to pay careful attention to how much alcohol you consume, how often, and how it affects you, especially if you drink in an effort to feel better when you're sad or upset. While an occasional drink may be fine if, and only if, your doctor tells you it's OK is probably safe when you have MS, drinking to excess could put you on the road to becoming dependent on alcohol.

The Drinking/Depression Connection

There's not a lot of research showing people with MS are more likely to develop alcoholism, but a few studies suggest this might be the case. In a Canadian study of 708 people with MS, 14 percent screened positive for possible alcohol abuse or dependence. Alcohol abuse was more frequent among people who were younger, had less MS disability, employed, and, not surprisingly, had more symptoms of depression.

In another study of 2,655 United States veterans with MS, about 14 percent gave survey responses that indicated alcohol abuse. As in the Canadian study, they were more likely to be younger, to have jobs, and to be less disabled. Women were as likely to drink too much as men were. What's more, few of the people who screened positive for alcohol misuse were getting any sort of medical help: Only a little over a quarter of them said they'd gotten advice about their drinking from a doctor or other caregiver.

Diagnosing a Drinking Problem

According to the Mayo Clinic, alcoholism is “a chronic and often progressive disease that includes problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect (physical dependence), or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking. If you have alcoholism, you can't consistently predict how much you'll drink, how long you'll drink, or what consequences will occur from your drinking.”

What's more, you can have a problem without being dependent on alcohol. Even if you just drink too much at times, enough to cause problems in your life, you should be concerned about your drinking. If this is the case, ask yourself the following four questions. They make up the CAGE quiz, which is used by doctors and other medical providers to get a snapshot of a patient's drinking habits:

C — Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?

A — Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

G — Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?

E — Eye-opener: Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

If you answered “yes” to at least two of these questions, you may have a problem with alcohol. To get an even clearer picture of the extent of your drinking, this alcohol abuse screening quiz can show you where your alcohol use falls on the scale of “safe,” “risky,” or “harmful.”

Getting Help

Talk to your doctor right away if you're struggling to control your drinking or think there's a chance you may be headed toward a dependency on alcohol. He'll be able to diagnose you for sure and refer you to a specialist if necessary to help you get things under control. If depression or some other psychological problem seems to be connected to your desire to drink, you may want to see a therapist as well.

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