Multiple Sclerosis and Risk for PTSD

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There is a definite correlation between having multiple sclerosis (MS) and facing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  and place a person at risk for the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Experiencing a life-threatening illnesses or severe medical condition such as MS is one such type of event.

MS is a chronic disease of the nervous system. It is believed to be an autoimmune disease meaning your body's own immune system attacks cells in your brain and spinal cord.

There are numerous symptoms of MS. Symptoms can be mild, including numbness in limbs, or they can be severe, such as paralysis or complete loss of vision. The symptoms of MS, their severity, and their progression vary from person to person.

Being diagnosed with MS can be considered a traumatic event. The 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines a traumatic event as a situation where the person experienced, witnessed or was confronted with an event where there was the threat of or actual death or serious injury. The event may also have involved a threat to the person's physical well-being or the physical well-being of another person. Without a doubt, MS meets this criteria. It has a major impact on a person's body and life. Further, because it is unexpected (both in initial occurrence and its progression), a person may initially experience a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

Given this, being diagnosed with MS may place an individual at risk for the development of PTSD.

Developing PTSD following a diagnosis of MS is a serious issue. PTSD can interfere greatly with many areas of a person's life. However, developing PTSD in response to MS can be particularly troubling. PTSD symptoms can negatively affect a person's physical health and place greater stress on your body, further increasing risk for future health problems.

PTSD may also contribute to the development of unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or substance use, which can increase your risk for MS symptom relapses. In addition, high levels of stress can trigger the occurrence of MS symptoms.

The unpredictable and uncertain nature of MS may also lead to other anxiety-related symptoms besides PTSD. For example, people may develop severe worry about future MS relapses, which can make PTSD symptoms worse. They may also develop depression.

Studies on MS and PTSD

Few studies have been conducted on the connection between MS and PTSD; however, what has been done shows a relationship between the two. In one study, a group of researchers looked at the symptoms of PTSD among 58 MS patients, most with relapsing-remitting or secondary progressive MS. They found that 16 percent met criteria for PTSD, a rate higher than what is found in the general population. People with PTSD were also more likely to be depressed.

In another study, 126 people with MS were asked questions about their PTSD symptoms.

They found that the level of disability experienced as a result of MS was a predictor of how strong someone's PTSD symptoms were. Together, these studies show that MS and PTSD are related and whether or not someone develops PTSD may be dependent on the severity of a person's MS.

Getting Help For Your PTSD

To learn more about MS and how to cope, you can visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society or the About.com site for MS. Both websites have excellent tips for coping with MS, with many strategies (e.g., exercise, stress management, improving your diet) that can also be helpful for PTSD symptoms. If you have been diagnosed with MS and have begun to experience symptoms of PTSD, it is very important to seek help. There are a number of effective treatments for PTSD. In addressing your PTSD through treatment, you may notice that other areas of your life (such as your physical health) are more easily managed. 

References:

Chalfant, A.M., Bryant, R.A., & Fulcher, G. (2004). Posttraumatic stress disorder following diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 17, 423-428.

Counsell, A., Hadjistavropoulos, H.D., Kehler, M.D., & Asmundson, G.J.G. (2012, in press). Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in individuals with multiple sclerosis. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy.

National Multiple Sclerosis Society

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