How do additional medical conditions impact a person’s MS?

24 November, 2020
  • Three new Australian studies have investigated how common additional medical conditions are in people with MS, and how they impact MS symptoms and overall quality of life
  • People with MS had higher rates of other medical conditions than the general population including depression, high blood pressure and gastrointestinal problems
  • Additional medical conditions can exacerbate MS symptoms and reduce quality of life, so early and targeted management of these is important to benefit people with MS

The Australian MS Longitudinal Study (AMSLS) is MS Research Australia’s collaborative research platform that has been running for almost twenty years. Our goal is to provide real-life data on Australians living with MS to assist medical and support services in providing better support for people with MS, their families and carers. In recent years there has been increasing interest in the role of additional medical conditions (or “comorbidities”) in people with MS. There are many reports that they can delay a MS diagnosis, alter the progression of disability, affect treatment use, limit physical activity and significantly reduce quality of life.

Three new AMSLS studies by Dr Lara Lo from the University of Tasmania published in the Journal of Neurology investigated how other medical conditions impact Australians living with MS.

Does having MS lead to a greater chance of having other medical conditions?

The first study surveyed additional medical conditions in people with MS in Australia. Of the 19 conditions analysed, 14 of these were significantly more common in people with MS than in the general population (after taking into account the effects of age and gender). These included cancer, heart and vascular diseases, anxiety, depression, and gastrointestinal disorders. There was no difference in the prevalence of these medical conditions between relapsing- and progressive-onset disease, but the prevalence was higher in those with a longer duration of MS.

MS might contribute to the risk of developing other conditions, or there might be shared factors that predispose people either directly or indirectly to several conditions including MS.

Will additional medical conditions impact MS symptoms? 

The second study examined the impact of additional medical conditions on the severity of MS symptoms. The researchers found that MS symptoms were more severe in people with a higher number of other medical conditions, with the greatest effects on depression, anxiety and pain.

When these conditions were analysed individually, mental health disorders (such as diagnosed depression) and musculoskeletal disorders (such as osteoporosis) had the most influence on MS symptoms. Mental health disorders were linked to increased severity of MS symptoms including anxiety, cognitive issues, fatigue and sexual dysfunction; while musculoskeletal disorders were associated with increased pain, walking and balance issues, and bowel and bladder issues.

Do additional medical conditions impact quality of life? 

The final study measured quality of life in people with MS, including factors such as happiness, coping, relationships, self-worth, mental health, independent living, senses and pain. Not surprisingly, having a higher number of additional medical conditions was associated with reduced quality of life, with mental health disorders having the greatest impact, and musculoskeletal disorders the second largest contributor.

What does this mean for people with MS?

These studies highlight the huge impact additional medical conditions have on a person’s MS and their quality of life, as well as the importance of identifying and actively managing these conditions. Early and routine screening for other medical conditions should be integral to monitoring. Mental health and musculoskeletal conditions had the greatest impact for people with MS, so successful monitoring and management is vital to improving quality of life.

For more information on these, and other lifestyle factors that can be modified for optimal management of MS, please see our free guide: Adapting your lifestyle: a guide for people with MS.

MS Research Australia gratefully acknowledges the nearly 3,000 Australians with MS who generously donate their time and data to the AMSLS to support evidence-based management of MS in Australia. For more information or to register please visit here.

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