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Stress and Multiple Sclerosis


Updated June 26, 2014

Stress and MS Relapses

While there have been few studies examining the relationship of stress and MS symptoms, MS patients often report that stress causes their symptoms to worsen. Because stress interacts with the immune system, it could be possible that stress may trigger a worsening of MS symptoms or a relapse.

In a 2006, Australian researchers conducted one of the first studies to seriously examine the relationship of stress and MS relapse. This study followed 101 people with MS for 2 years and asked about their stress levels and stressful events every three months. They found that the greater number of acute stressors that a person reported predicted relapse. They also found (not surprisingly) that people who were having a relapse reported more stress. Chronic stress and stress severity did not predict relapse, only the number of acute stressors. Individuals who used social support (friends and family) to cope with stressors reduced their risk of a relapse.

Stress and MS Symptoms

Many people with MS note that their symptoms seem to worsen during times of stress. This makes sense from a physiological viewpoint. During times of stress, certain hormones are released in the brain. These hormones slow down the activity of the sections of the brain responsible for reasoning and decision making. It is logical that for people with MS, this “slow down” would result in an increase in cognitive symptoms. However, no researchers have proven that this is true.

Stress from MS

While there isn’t clear proof that stress can cause MS symptoms, there is no doubt that having MS is stressful. There are many emotional, physical and even financial challenges in having MS that contribute to both chronic and acute stress. Some examples are:
  • The unpredictable nature of MS
  • Appearance of new symptoms
  • Concerns with health insurance
  • Concerns with employment
  • Needing help from others
  • and many more
Every person with MS should develop a proactive system for coping with stress.

Coping with Stress from MS

There are many ways of coping with stress. Here is a sample of some stress-reduction approaches that people living with MS should consider developing:
  • Social Support: When a relapse occurs or symptoms worsen, you may need help to get to your doctor’s office, fulfill your responsibilities or just make dinner. Cultivate your network of friends and family. Keep close ties with the people you can depend on. Let them know how important they are in your life. When you are feeling good, try to help them.
  • Relaxation: Relaxation is the best way to combat stress in your body. When you are under stress, your body releases certain stress-related hormones. By relaxing, you can reverse this process. A breathing technique known as the relaxation response has been proven to reverse the effects of stress in your body. You can also learn meditation, yoga or gentle stretching. Anything that relaxes you is great – a lukewarm bath, candles, music or whatever works for you.
  • Planning: We don’t like to think about times when symptoms worsen, but having a plan in place will make everything go easier. Think about what would change in your life if you were having a relapse. Who would take you to the doctor? Who would watch the kids? What about work? Go through your typical day and consider how you could deal with each complication. Talk to the people you would need to depend on before you need them. Set aside a little ‘relapse fund’ for takeout, massages and anything else you might need. Creating a relapse plan for MS can make a big difference when things are difficult.

Stress as an MS Cause

A study in Denmark used national health registry data to examine if stress could be a cause for MS. This study found 21,000 parents who had child that died. They compared them to almost 300,000 other parents. In the group that had lost a child, 28 people (or 1/750) developed MS. In the comparison group, 230 people (or 1/1300) did. The people who had lost a child were 1.5 times more likely to develop MS. If the child was lost unexpectedly, the risk increased to more than twice as likely to develop MS.

This doesn’t mean that the stress of being stuck in traffic can cause MS. The type of stress the researchers studied was a very specific and deep stress. The loss of child can profoundly impact parents. Researchers were not able to assess how the parents coped with the loss of a child. There was no data on depression, grief duration or coping methods. The interesting finding here is that the emotional impact of the loss of a child increases the risk of MS. There is something more complex than simple physiological mechanisms impacting MS risk.


Brown RF, Tennant CC, Sharrock M, Hodgkinson S, Pollard JD. Relationship between stress and relapse in multiple sclerosis: Part I. Mult Scler. 2006 Aug;12(4):453-64.

Brown RF, Tennant CC, Sharrock M, Hodgkinson S, Pollard JD. Relationship between stress and relapse in multiple sclerosis: Part II. Mult Scler. 2006 Aug;12(4):453-64.

J. Li, MD, MSc, C. Johansen, MD, PhD, H. Brønnum–Hansen, MSc, E. Stenager, MD, N. Koch–Henriksen, MD, PhD and J. Olsen, MD, PhD. The risk of multiple sclerosis in bereaved parents. NEUROLOGY 2004;62:726-729

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