Alcoholism and Multiple Sclerosis

Learn about your risk for alcoholism and what to do if you may have a problem.

Woman having cocktail
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People with multiple sclerosis (MS) face many challenges related to the disease and its symptoms, which may increase the risk for alcohol abuse and alcoholism. These include depression, which is a very common symptom of MS.

People with MS also can be under a great deal of stress, stemming from a variety of factors, including: not knowing how disabled they may get, loss of financial security, relationship problems and other challenges introduced by this unpredictable chronic illness.

Alcoholism is defined by the Mayo Clinic as: “a chronic and often progressive disease that includes problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect (physical dependence), or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking. If you have alcoholism, you can't consistently predict how much you'll drink, how long you'll drink, or what consequences will occur from your drinking.”

The definition continues, to say: “It's possible to have a problem with alcohol, even when it has not progressed to the point of alcoholism. Problem drinking means you drink too much at times, causing repeated problems in your life, although you're not completely dependent on alcohol.”

How Common is Alcoholism or Abuse Among People with MS?

Although little research has been done into the prevalence of alcoholism and excess use of alcohol in people with MS, some data exists.

In a Canadian study among 708 people with MS, 14% of the sample screened positive for possible alcohol abuse or dependence. Alcohol abuse was more frequent among people who were: younger, had less MS disability, employed and had more symptoms of depression.

In another study among 2,655 US veterans with MS, 13.9% gave survey responses that indicated alcohol abuse.

As in the Canadian study, they were more likely to be younger, employed and less disabled. There was no difference in prevalence of alcohol abuse between men and women. Among the people who screened positive for alcohol misuse, only 26.2% said that they had received advice from a medical provider in the past year to decrease or abstain from drinking.

For comparison, about 12% of American adults have had an alcohol dependence problem at some time in their life – however, this is much lower than the prevalence among people with MS, as that was measured for the past 12 months, not for a lifetime.

How Do I Know if I Have a Problem with Alcohol?

The CAGE quiz is a series of four questions that are asked by doctors and other healthcare workers to try to get a quick picture of your alcohol use and whether you may have a problem.

  • C - Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
  • A- Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

  • G - Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?

  • E - Eye opener: Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

If you answer “yes” to at least two of the questions, this indicates that you may have a problem with alcohol.

You may want to take a more comprehensive alcohol abuse screening quiz to tell you where your alcohol use falls on the scale of “safe,” “risky” or “harmful.” 

What Can I Do if I Think I Have a Problem with Alcohol?

Let me refer you to alcoholism.about.com, which has many articles on treatment and help for alcoholism, including:

The Bottom Line: People with MS seem to be at higher risk for alcoholism than the general population, although little research has been done in this area. Alcohol abuse presents additional dangers for people with MS, in that alcohol can: make many MS symptoms temporarily worse, as well as interact with medications that people take for their MS symptoms.

Sources:

Bombardier CH, Blake KD, Ehde DM, Gibbons LE, Moore D. Kraft GH. Alcohol and drug abuse among persons with multiple sclerosis. Mult Scler. 2004 Feb;10(1):35-40.

Hasin D et al. (2007). "Prevalence, Correlates, Disability, and Comorbidity of DSM-IV Alcohol Abuse and Dependence in the United States". Archives of General Psychiatry 64(7): 830–42

Turner AP, Hawkins EJ, Haselkorn JK, Kivlahan DR. Alcohol misuse and multiple sclerosis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2009 May;90(5):842-8.

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