Merck Manuals Dispels Multiple Sclerosis Myths

Though multiple sclerosis (MS) is one of the most common diseases affecting the central nervous system, misconceptions and outdated stereotypes about the condition persist.

Ten thousand new cases are diagnosed every year, yet relatively little is known about the causes of MS. It’s an autoimmune disorder, which means the immune system attacks its own body but the disease affects everyone who suffers from it differently. Symptoms can also be considerably different from person to person.

March is MS Awareness Month. To help increase clarity about the symptoms and lifestyle impacts of the disease, Michael Levin, MD, Multiple Sclerosis Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan, has debunked several of the most common misconceptions about MS on Those myths include:

Myth #1 – Everyone with multiple sclerosis will end up in a wheel chair.

Debunked. Multiple sclerosis’ progression varies greatly from person to person, but large studies have shown it takes 15 to 20 years on average for a person to go from developing the disease to needing a cane. Ongoing treatment can delay this progression even more.

Three out of four people with multiple sclerosis never need a wheelchair.

Myth #2 – Women with multiple sclerosis should not get pregnant.

Debunked. In fact, relapse rates during pregnancy actually go down, which is most likely related to the production of hormones. Relapse after pregnancy is common, but not at a higher rate than the person had before pregnancy in almost all cases.

Myth #3 – People with multiple sclerosis should avoid exercise.

Debunked. There’s no reason individuals with multiple sclerosis can’t exercise, and in some cases stretching can help reduce muscle spasms. Heat often makes symptoms worse, so overheating during exercise should be avoided.

Myth #4 – Multiple sclerosis is difficult to detect and diagnose.

Debunked (sort of). While lots of people suffer for years before being diagnosed, the effects of the disease on the central nervous system are often relatively easy to detect on imaging scans.

However, recognizing the need for those tests often takes time. Many early symptoms are common and not specific to MS, such as difficulty walking and numbness below the waist. Too often, people will wait until their third or fourth bout of symptoms to see a doctor.

Myth #5 – Everyone has the same chance of developing multiple sclerosis.

Debunked. Multiple sclerosis is about twice as common in women than it is in men. There are several factors associated with an increased risk of developing MS, including low levels of vitamin D, smoking and obesity. Genetics are a factor as well. An individual’s chances of developing multiple sclerosis are slightly higher if someone in their family has the condition.

Finally, there are very few cases near the equator, and the disease gets more common in people who live further north in cooler climates early in their lives – which may be related to sunlight exposure and vitamin D levels.

Myth #6 – There is a cure for multiple sclerosis

Debunked. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for MS. Doctors will often use short-term corticosteroid treatments to help treat attacks and flare-ups, but these drugs do little to affect the disease’s progression.

However, new treatment options are being developed all the time. More than a dozen new treatments and medications have been introduced over the last two decades. These treatments are delaying the progression of the disease and allowing people to live fuller, healthier lives.