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Multiple Diagnoses and MS: Coping With Comorbidities

Posted on March 11, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Article written by
Eli Sachse, RN

As people age, their health conditions can feel like they are piling up on top of each other. This is especially true for people living with multiple sclerosis (MS). People with MS appear to have an increased risk for developing some other conditions. Staying organized and on track with health care for MS alone is challenging enough — and becomes more so if other conditions appear.

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms vary from person to person, but motor and cognitive problems are among the most common. Most people with MS eventually develop some degree of disability.

Managing one or more conditions alongside MS can be stressful and taxing. Fortunately, there are strategies and treatments available to help. Notably, it’s important to speak with your health care provider before making significant changes — such as new medications or diets — that can impact your health.

What Is Whole Person Health?

The concept of whole person health entails looking at your whole lifestyle when creating a treatment plan. Instead of focusing on alleviating specific symptoms, it means addressing things like:

  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Social factors
  • Emotional factors

Whole person health is sometimes referred to as whole person care or holistic health. Sometimes, people use the term “holistic health” to mean a treatment plan based solely on diet, exercise, and herbal treatments, excluding modern medical treatments. But the modern approach to whole person care includes all treatments that make sense for your individual circumstances, including:

  • Medications
  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Talk therapy
  • Community engagement

The human body and mind are complicated, interconnected systems. To function at your peak, you have to address the health and well-being of all of your parts. That might sound daunting and exhausting. But by taking small steps, you can improve your health overall and start to feel a little bit better every day.

How Do Multiple Diagnoses Affect MyMSTeam Members?

Many people with MS face challenges from other chronic conditions. Having multiple, chronic conditions at the same time can also be referred to as having comorbidities. According to a 2015 paper from MS Journal, the five most common comorbidities that occur alongside MS include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Lung disease

Other conditions found to be more common among people with MS include:

  • Heart disease
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Strokes
  • Arthritis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (or IBD)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (or IBS)
  • Seizure disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Sleep disorders
  • Alcohol abuse

Additionally, Americans are generally more likely to experience challenges with diabetes in their lifetimes.

MyMSTeam members often discuss living with and managing MS and other comorbidities. “I don't think I can deal with MS much longer on top of heart disease, chronic back pain, and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]. I'm ready to throw in the towel,” wrote one team member.

Another posted, “MS plus fibromyalgia, here! Sometimes I can't believe how much pain I'm used to.”

Beyond experiencing symptoms of multiple conditions, treating them all at once can be challenging. “Type 1 diabetes is hard to deal with every day, much less adding MS problems on top of it all,” wrote one member about their comorbidities.

Treatments for other conditions can also impact treatment options for MS, and vice versa. “My neurologist told me that since I got cancer, I can never again take the MS medication I was taking before,” a member shared.

Managing Other Chronic Conditions

If left untreated, all of the aforementioned conditions can affect your overall health and sense of well-being. Therefore, it is important to devise a plan to keep you on track with managing them.

For example, many people with MS face cognitive challenges as a result of lesions in the central nervous system, and these challenges can worsen over time. Factors such as fluctuating blood-sugar levels, poor diet, and insufficient sleep can also impact cognition. Poor sleep can also be a symptom of depression. Layered on top of one another, all of these challenges can make it progressively harder for people with MS to remain alert and effective and to live well. Therefore, addressing all of the separate challenges is essential to improving well-being overall.

See what MS specialist Dr. Aaron Boster says about what newly diagnosed people can do to protect their mental health.

Get on Schedule

Often, simply getting on schedule is a good first step. Whether that means using an app on your smartphone or tablet or turning to a paper calendar, find an effective way to keep track of your:

Stay on Track With Medication

Taking medications as they are prescribed, and at roughly the same time every day, can help them work more effectively. This, in turn, can help you feel better and more alert overall. This is especially true for:

  • Preventative inhalers for asthma or COPD
  • Diabetes medications
  • Medications for hypertension
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Pain medication
  • Treatments for muscle spasms

Sometimes, you may miss a dose of medication or a treatment and never know it. By keeping a log or organizing your medications into a weekly reminder box (also called a mediset), you have a simple way to check whether or not you forgot.

Manage Symptoms

Staying ahead of MS symptoms such as muscle spasms and pain means being consistent about medications and physical therapies, like stretching and movement. The same thing applies to our mental health. Taking antidepressant medications at the same time every day is crucial for their effectiveness. Also, being consistent with a meditation practice or therapy is usually a lot more helpful than doing them irregularly, or trying to do them when you are already stressed.

This doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to have a bad day. But staying on top of your conditions and keeping them under control, as opposed to waiting until you feel bad, is essential for overall health and well-being. Letting one aspect of our health get bad will usually affect another system negatively. For example, poorly controlled cholesterol will affect the cardiovascular system, which can affect the energy level.

Staying ahead of your conditions not only keeps you healthy for longer time periods; it helps you feel that you have control over your life and health. And it is important to remember that you do have control — maybe not over everything, but definitely over the direction of your treatment.

Get Good Sleep

Getting enough sleep can profoundly affect health and well-being overall, yet it’s something many people neglect. Sleep is when our body heals and restores, and not getting enough sleep can blunt our ability to empathize and communicate emotionally.

Sleep hygiene is a useful umbrella term for a variety of strategies to maximize your sleep quality. These can include:

  • Ensuring your sleeping area is dark
  • Going to bed at a consistent time
  • Eliminating screen time in bed
  • Avoiding large meals or caffeinated beverages near bedtime

Join a Community

Being a part of a community — including online groups like MyMSTeam — can improve quality of life in so many ways. Joining a book or hobby club, veterans' group, or a faith community provides more opportunities to meet others you might have a lot in common with. It can give life a sense of purpose and provide a new perspective.

There are others like you out there who struggle with managing multiple conditions. Sometimes, just talking about your frustrations with others can make you feel like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders.

Volunteerism

Volunteering can do the same. Volunteering has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. You might not think that you have a lot to give as a volunteer. But there is something for nearly everyone to do. Even just being a friendly voice on the phone to someone in crisis can save a life. Volunteering with the Red Cross during disasters can also be very rewarding. There are plenty of volunteer jobs that are not physical — and may even be done remotely.

If you are nervous about asking for accommodations, or are unsure what kinds of work might be available to you, reach out to the organization you’d like to volunteer for. They may have disability integration assistance.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask for Help

Living with other chronic conditions along with MS is a huge task that takes a lot of maintenance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If people offer to help, that means they want to help. Let them, and don’t feel guilty about it.

For some people, an in-home caregiver can be quite helpful. They can provide personal care, do light housework, take you to appointments or shopping, or even just be someone to talk to. If you have access to caregiving help, consider trying it out. Some states will help subsidize the costs of hiring one. Hiring one can give your family and friends a break — and more quality time to spend with just you.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 164,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with multiple sclerosis.

Are you living with multiple sclerosis and other chronic illnesses? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Eli Sachse, RN is a registered nurse living in California. He has written about health topics for Sonoma Medicine and Microcosm Publishing. Learn more about him here.

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