Relapses are the hallmark of relapsing forms of MS, which include clinically isolated syndrome, relapsing-remitting MS, and active secondary progressive MS. During relapses — sometimes called flare-ups or exacerbations — new or worsening symptoms of MS develop and continue for at least 24 hours.
The duration and severity of relapses vary from person to person depending on where in your central nervous system damage is happening. Some relapses last a couple of days, and others persist for a few months. Any length of time can feel like an eternity during a severe relapse. Read on to find out how long MS relapses last on average and what you can do to feel better faster.
In a survey of 5,300 people with MS, the majority (62.5 percent) of relapses lasted less than one month. Participants also shared how frequently they experienced relapses:
Many MyMSTeam members report having shorter relapses. “My last relapse lasted about three weeks,” wrote one member. “I had my first relapse in 10 years. It lasted 3 1/2 weeks,” shared another. “All of my relapses have been short-lived and all different symptoms of multiple sclerosis,” described a member. “I’ve had MS since I was in my 20s. Now, I’m 78 and still pushing through it.”
Once the MS exacerbation subsides, it doesn’t mean you’ll immediately return to “normal,” or your baseline, milder symptoms. It takes time for your body to recover. One MyMSTeam member wrote, “The flare itself lasted weeks, but I was bad for three months. It took me over a year to get back to baseline with some residual effects.”
MS is a chronic lifelong autoimmune disease. The course of the disease can change over time. In progressive forms of MS, people don’t experience relapses and remission, and symptoms progress gradually over time. “My relapses used to last three to six weeks on average,” related a member. “Now I’m progressive, so symptoms are daily.”
Of the people with MS in the study mentioned above, 10.9 percent reported flares lasting one to two months, and 13.6 percent said their relapses persisted for more than two months.
Some MyMSTeam members have also reported experiencing longer relapses. “My first relapse since diagnosis lasted 18 months,” wrote one member. “I had a relapse that lasted almost five months,” said another.
A relapse of any length can take a major toll on people with MS, but longer relapses can test emotional endurance as well as physical limits. “This relapse has lasted four months up to now, and I don’t think I can deal with it anymore,” shared a MyMSTeam member. Her fellow members were quick to provide support and recommend ways she could talk to her doctor about getting effective treatment.
Taking care of your mental health is just as important to your quality of life as treating your immune system. If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety — both common in people with MS — reach out to your support network of family and friends and in-person or online support groups like MyMSTeam. A health care professional can also help connect you with resources.
Unfortunately, the survey referenced above found that only about half (46.9 percent) of participants always (or often) contacted their doctor about managing relapses. Worse, 18.5 percent rarely let their doctor know they were having a relapse, and 7.3 percent never reached out to their health care provider about relapses.
It’s important to understand that treating a flare-up can provide several benefits. Getting treatment for MS flares has been shown to:
Always let your health care provider know if your MS symptoms have gotten worse or if you’re experiencing a new symptom lasting more than 24 hours.
Treatment options for an MS relapse may include a course of corticosteroids (such as methylprednisolone or Acthar Gel), muscle relaxants, plasmapheresis (plasma exchange), or physical therapy.
Disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) have been proven to reduce the rate and severity of MS relapses, limit the activity of the disease, and slow the progression of disability. However, they must be taken consistently over the long term to have full effect. Your neurologist may recommend changing your DMTs if relapses are becoming more frequent — another reason it’s important to communicate with your doctor about relapses.
If time has gone by with no relapses, you may wonder whether your DMT is still needed. But disease activity can continue without noticeable relapses. A MyMSTeam member had this advice about MS relapses and treatment: “No one can tell how long an average relapse will last. Everyone is different. Just remember: Even when you’re ‘normal,’ your disease is still active.”
“I had my first flare in 10 years. I spent five days on steroids. Stick with your disease-modifying therapies, and don’t tempt fate!” urged another member.
MS relapses are different in each person, varying from how long they last and the severity of symptoms. Let your health care team know anytime you think you’re having a relapse. You can discuss possible triggers and next steps for management. If MS symptoms are causing substantial problems in your daily life, seek medical attention promptly.
MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 195,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with multiple sclerosis.
If you’ve had an MS relapse, how long did it last for you? Was there anything you did to help manage your symptoms or get back to feeling better faster? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyMSTeam.