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How to Talk to Your Doctor About MS: Advice From Dr. Aaron Boster

Posted on August 03, 2020
Medically reviewed by
Aaron Boster, M.D.
Article written by
Jessica Wolpert

  • Your doctor learns the most about your multiple sclerosis (MS) through what you tell them, not through exams or testing.
  • Bring a list of symptoms that are bothering you, changes in your condition, and questions you have to every appointment.
  • Many symptoms of MS, especially cognitive symptoms, can be treated once your doctor knows about them.

Visits to the doctor are stressful at the best of times, For people with multiple sclerosis — who are dealing with different symptoms, many of them invisible — the prospect of visiting the doctor can seem overwhelming. Symptoms can be embarrassing, or you might assume that your MS symptoms can’t be treated. Fortunately, there are ways to make talking with your doctor easier and ensure you get the best quality treatment available.

A 2019 MyMSTeam survey found that about half of MyMSTeam members were experiencing cognitive dysfunction. Many of them had been told that it was just old age or “just stuff that happens.” When MyMSTeam surveyed those same people, almost half had those symptoms before they got an MS diagnosis. These symptoms are leading indicators of MS, but it hadn’t always been clear to members that they were something to discuss with a neurologist.

MyMSTeams recently spoke with Dr. Aaron Boster about how to effectively communicate with your doctor about your MS symptoms. Dr. Boster is a board certified neurologist specializing in multiple sclerosis and related inflammatory disorders of the central nervous system. He is the founder and president of the Boster Center for Multiple Sclerosis in Columbus, Ohio. His YouTube channel has many informative videos for helping people cope with MS, including 10 tips for talking to your doctor.

What are your top tips for talking to your MS neurologist?

Ninety percent of what I learn about you is from what you tell me. If you don't tell me something, most of the time, I don't know about it. I can learn some things from the neurology exams, MRIs, and laboratory testing. But by and large, I'm going to help you in beating your disease by learning about what's going on from you.

Much of MS is invisible. I divide MS symptoms into “up there” and “down there” symptoms — mental and physical — and both of them can be hard to notice from the outside. “Up there” symptoms, like mood, cognition, and energy symptoms, are common for people affected by MS, but you don't look tired, you don't look confused, you don't look sad. The “down there” symptoms of MS involve bowel, bladder, and sexual function. Again, these are very common symptoms that people with MS deal with, but you can’t notice them just by looking at somebody, and they may be difficult to talk about. If we as doctors don't learn about these symptoms, then we can't help you.

I can treat every single one of those symptoms I just listed. Sometimes the treatment is a therapist or occupational therapy, sometimes the treatment is medication. The point is, if it's bothering you, I'm asking you to tell me about it. Then we'll discuss the options. I may come up with seven options, and you can say yes, no, or maybe to each one. Based on what you want to do, we can execute a plan. But it's all predicated on you telling me. I want my patients to feel comfortable bringing something to the table, because that way, we can discuss it and see the connections that allow us to put some things together.

If your doctor isn’t raising the issue of your symptoms, you should?

Absolutely. I think that preparing a list when you go to see the doctor should be mandatory. You should write down a list of the issues that are bothering you. Write down your questions and bring a list of medical updates. Sometimes, when you're in the office, you may be overcome by emotions or you may simply forget things. If you have everything down on a piece of paper or on your phone, you can say, “Oh, Doc! I almost forgot. I'm having trouble feeling my leg.” You know? Then we'll be able to talk about it.

What about invisible symptoms?

There is a prodrome for MS. A prodrome is a group of symptoms which people with MS experience before their first MS attack, and they tend to be cognitive, behavioral, and emotional. And, if you are able to talk to a specialist about these symptoms, they can be improved, even without medication.

There are so many things we can do to improve cognition especially, and I desperately want patients to tell me about cognitive symptoms. They’re some of the leading causes of loss of work and quality of life for people with MS and they’re treatable.

MyMSTeam Members on Talking With Their Doctors

When you join MyMSTeam, you gain a support network of more than 150,000 others who understand what you are going through. Many MyMSTeam members report struggling to communicate effectively with their doctors. Members often advise each other to find another health care provider if they are not receiving the care they need.

On MyMSTeam, members are always quick to share their experiences communicating with their doctors and to offer support to others who are having challenges.

Do you have trouble talking to your doctor about symptoms? Can you share any tips with others for how to better communicate with health care providers? Comment below or post on MyMSTeam.

Aaron Boster, M.D. is a board-certified neurologist specializing in multiple sclerosis and related central nervous system inflammatory disorders. Learn more about him here.
Jessica Wolpert works to empower patients through the creation of content that illuminates treatments' effects on the everyday lives of people with chronic conditions. Learn more about her here.

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