5 Myths About Multiple Sclerosis

Don't let these falsehoods misguide you

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic neurological illness that affects nearly 2.3 million individuals worldwide. Despite the number of people it affects, there are still numerous misconceptions circulating that may have unfortunate consequences. Imagine if you never have a child because you believe that pregnancy with MS is contraindicated, or falling asleep every night believing that your MS is fatal.

By debunking these five common MS myths and revealing the facts, you can hopefully feel more at ease about yourself (or a loved one) having this condition. For the vast majority, MS is a manageable condition, albeit one that requires resiliency, support, and a dedicated healthcare team.

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5 Myths About Life With MS

1. You Shouldn't Get Pregnant With MS

While this statement may have been acceptable seventy years ago, experts now know that having MS is not a contraindication to becoming pregnant. In other words, bearing and raising a happy, healthy child is absolutely possible with MS.

This is because research has consistently shown that pregnancy does not have an overall negative impact on a woman's long-term MS course.

Another piece of good news is that many women with MS report feeling quite well and energized during their pregnancies, especially in the second and third trimesters when their immune systems are quieted down.

Keep in mind, in the first three to six months after having a baby (called the postpartum period), the chance of having an MS relapse increases by 20 to 40 percent.

Postpartum relapses do not impact a woman's long-term MS disability.

Perhaps this is because the number of relapses "balances out," since there is a lower relapse risk during pregnancy but a higher relapse risk in the postpartum period.

Breastfeeding is now an option for many women with MS. In fact, emerging research has found that exclusive breastfeeding may be protective in the postpartum period, decreasing a woman's chance of experiencing a relapse.

Keep in Mind

While these facts are hopefully refreshing, it's important to discuss any pregnancy-related questions with your personal neurologist. These facts are based on statistics from scientific studies, and statistics cannot predict any single woman's outcome.

Moreover, the timing of pregnancy is critical to discuss with your doctor. Since no MS disease-modifying therapy is approved for use during pregnancy, it's ideal to have your MS under solid control before conceiving—this is also for your own comfort and well-being.

2. MS Is Inherited

MS is not directly inherited, meaning there is no single gene passed on from mothers with MS to their babies. That said, there is a slightly higher risk of a child developing MS—around 2 percent—if a child's mother or father has MS. (A person in the general population has a less than 1 percent chance of developing MS.)

Other statistics on MS-related to genetics include:

  • An identical twin of someone with MS has an approximately 25 to 30 percent chance of developing MS
  • The sibling of someone with MS has about a 5 percent chance of developing MS

Overall, these statistics suggest that a person's genetic makeup plays an important role in MS pathogenesis. In addition to a person's DNA, experts believe that exposure to certain environmental factors is what ultimately triggers MS.

Suspected environmental factors of MS include:

Keep in Mind

The fact that MS occurs at a higher rate among family members implies that genes do play a role in MS development. However, your DNA is not the full picture—something within a person's environment needs to be present as well.

3. MS Only Affects Adults

The average age of an MS diagnosis is 30 years old, but this does not mean children cannot develop MS. In fact, according to the National MS Society, up to 10,000 children in the United States have MS and up to another 15,000 children have experienced at least one symptom suggestive of MS.

Symptoms

Children with MS experience similar MS symptoms as adults—most notably fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, depression, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, and balance difficulties.

Interestingly though, there are a few symptoms that seem to be more common in children than adults. For instance, children with MS are more likely than adults with MS to develops isolated optic neuritis and symptoms related to brainstem lesions like vertigo and double vision.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing MS in children can be particularly challenging for two key reasons:

  • Symptoms (similar to adults) can be nonspecific or vague like fatigue or concentrating difficulties
  • MS can mimic other pediatric neurological conditions like acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, also called ADEM (infection within the central nervous system) or a brain tumor

Treatment

Treatment options for pediatric MS are limited. In fact, the only FDA approved drug for treating pediatric MS is Gilyena (fingolimod).

Besides taking a disease-modifying treatment like Gilyena to reduce the number of MS relapses and slow the progression of the disease, treating the symptoms of pediatric MS, especially invisible symptoms like fatigue and depression, are essential to a child's development and overall well-being.

Keep in Mind

MS is rare in children, but it does occur. The good news is that with increased awareness and education, it's a diagnosis that is now on doctors' radars more than before. As with adults, earlier diagnosis is key to tackling and slowing down your MS.

4. MS Is a Terminal Illness

MS is not a fatal disease. Rather, it's a chronic condition that requires lifelong management, similar to diabetes, high blood pressure, or arthritis.

While not a fatal disease, research suggests that MS may affect a person's life expectancy. According to one study in the medical journal Neurology, compared to the general population, people with MS die a median of seven years sooner.

Remember, many people with MS—over 50 percent—do not die of MS-related complications (such as urinary tract infections, pressure ulcers, or pneumonia).

Most people with MS die from the same conditions that others do—most commonly, cancer or heart disease. This suggests that if you have MS, engaging in a healthy lifestyle by exercising as best as you can, eating nutritiously, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding smoking can improve your chances of living a longer life.

Keep in Mind

MS is not a terminal illness, but it does present health challenges that may decrease your life expectancy. The good news is that with some work on your part, coupled with advances in MS therapies, you can live a fulfilled life with MS.

5. Everyone With MS Will Need a Wheelchair

Being diagnosed with MS does not mean you will be confined to a wheelchair. Even with progressive MS (a type of MS that significantly affects the spinal cord), research has found that only ten percent of people become restricted to a wheelchair within 15 years of onset.

Still, walking problems are common in MS, often stemming from several potential factors like muscle tightness and spasticity, fatigue, sensory disturbances, weakness, and balance and vision problems.

The good news is that there are several types of mobility assistive devices (braces, canes, walkers, among others) that you can choose from to help with your unique mobility needs.

For instance, if you have debilitating fatigue that worsens when walking long distances, you may opt to use a motorized wheelchair when grocery shopping or navigating long walkways in order to conserve energy.

If you are at high risk for falling, you and your MS healthcare team may decide it's time to use a cane, walker, or wheelchair full-time.

People who use mobility assistive devices often report feeling more empowered and independent.

Keep in mind too, besides mobility assistive devices, gait training exercises and medications to control the symptoms that are negatively impacting your walking can also be very helpful.

Keep in Mind

While walking difficulties are common in MS, most people do not become restricted to a wheelchair. And for those who do, a wheelchair is often a wonderful reprieve. It can be a means of finally gaining back some independence. 

A Word From Verywell

MS is a complex disease and with misconceptions still circulating about, it can be tricky sorting out the facts. However, by reading well-informed articles and keeping in close touch with your neurologist, you are already taking the first steps to care for yourself (or your loved one) and managing this disease as best as you can.

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Article Sources

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  • National MS Society. (2016). Pregnancy, Delivery, and the Post Partum Period: Information for women with MS to share with their physicians.

  • National MS Society. (n.d.). Pediatric MS.