Flare-ups of multiple sclerosis are caused by stress, research suggests

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Flare-ups of multiple sclerosis are caused by stress, research suggests

  • University of Michigan study of 700 MS patients found stress triggers symptoms
  • More than 130,000 people in the UK suffer from the incurable disease 

Debilitating flare-ups of multiple sclerosis (MS) can be triggered by stress, research suggests.

The incurable condition, which affects the brain and spinal cord, can cause difficulty walking and muscle spasms, as well as blurred vision, eye pain, incontinence and depression.

For the majority of MS patients, these symptoms come and go – known as relapsing and remitting MS – with many going months without experiencing them.

Now researchers believe they have found a clear link between stress and flare-ups of the problems.

Scientists at the University of Michigan studied the pattern of symptoms in more than 700 MS patients. They found that those who experienced stressful events – such as poverty, abuse and divorce – were significantly more likely to have frequent, severe flare-ups.

Debilitating flare-ups of multiple sclerosis (MS) can be triggered by stress, research suggests (file photo)

Debilitating flare-ups of multiple sclerosis (MS) can be triggered by stress, research suggests (file photo)

This also meant that these patients were more likely to be permanently disabled by the disease.

The study, published in the US medical journal Brain And Behavior last week, also found that the Covid pandemic led to a significant rise in MS flare-ups.

More than 130,000 people in the UK suffer from MS, an incurable disease which develops when the immune system goes haywire and attacks the myelin sheath – a protective coating on the nerves in the brain and spinal cord.

Experts say that, for the 85 per cent of MS patients who suffer from relapsing and remitting MS, the new findings that show stress can trigger the return of symptoms could help protect against flare-ups.

‘Referrals to resources, such as mental health or substance-use support, could help reduce the impact of stress and enhance wellbeing,’ says Dr Tiffany Braley, a MS expert at the University of Michigan in the US and a co-author of the study.

But experts say it is still unclear why stress contributes to worsening MS symptoms.

‘This study doesn’t explore the mechanism in the body that means stress leads to MS relapses,’ says Dr Catherine Godbold, research communications manager at the charity MS Society.

‘It is possible that stress itself isn’t the true cause but that it leads to other damaging behaviours such as smoking or poor sleep, which increase the risk of relapses.’

Researchers at the University of Michigan say the next step of the study will be to investigate what impact these other factors have on MS flare-ups.



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